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Refuting inherent existence

Refuting inherent existence

Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are given during a weekend retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2016.

  • Chapter 13: “Analyzing Oneness”
  • Seeing the consequences of various reasonings to refute inherent existence
  • Chapter 14: “Analyzing Difference”
  • Analogy of reflection in the mirror
  • Chapter 15: “Coming to a conclusion”
  • Having a realistic perspective on the nature of cyclic existence
  • Questions and answers

At the bottom of Page 142, it was saying that the Buddha would say, “I was born as ‘such and such’,” but he never said, “In the past, Shakyamuni Buddha was ‘such and such’.” [He was] differentiating between the I of that life, which was Shakyamuni Buddha, and the general I that can be designated in terms of all the beginningless infinite lifetimes of that particular continuum.

In this way the agent of actions, karma, in a former life, and the agent that experiences the results of those karmas, are included within the same continuum of what Buddhists call the “non-inherently existent I” or it is usually called the “mere I.

It’s important to establish that the person who created the actions and the person who’s experiencing the results are part of the same continuum. If they aren’t, then I can create actions that I don’t experience the results of, and you could experience the results of my actions because they are equally other than your actions or equally the moments of mine are equally other.

Otherwise, if the ‘I’ were inherently produced and inherently disintegrates, such continuity would be impossible since the two lives, the person who committed the action and the person undergoing the effect, would be totally unrelated.

Then you couldn’t talk about any kind of continuity, and we couldn’t even remember anything either, because previous moments would be totally unrelated to later moments, because anything that is inherently existent doesn’t depend on causes and conditions, doesn’t depend on anything else. So when it ceased, that’s it, finished, no continuum.

This would result in the absurdity that the pleasurable effects of virtuous actions and the painful effects of non-virtuous actions, would not bear fruition for us. The effects of those actions would be wasted.

We wouldn’t experience the effects.

Also, since we undeniably experience the effects of actions, we would be experiencing the effects of actions we ourselves did not commit.

Because they are totally unrelated: the meditative reflection here.

Consider the consequences if the I is established in and of itself in accordance with how it appears to our minds and if it also is the same as body and mind.

Remember, it appears as this big thing that supports itself, that created itself, that governs itself and is independent of everything else. There are two ways it can be if it existed like that. It would have to be either one with the body and mind or totally separate. Now we’re looking at if they are one with the body and mind or if the I is one with the body and mind.

The I and the mind body would have to be utterly and in all ways one.

So the I would have to be either the combination of the body and mind or it would be the body or it would be the mind or it would be part of the body, or it would be part of the mind. But whatever we claimed it was, the word self would become superfluous, because whatever we claimed was the self, would be completely identical in all ways with the I. Do you get how then saying I, the I wouldn’t exist, it would be superfluous, and every time you said “I,” if you said “I’m my body,” then every time you said “I” you could say “body” or if you say “I’m my mind,” then every time you say “I” you could substitute “mind” and it would still make sense. But it doesn’t, because mind doesn’t walk down the road and body doesn’t think.

Then the second.

Is in that case, asserting an ‘I’ would be pointless.

That is what I just said. Then, three: this is another problem.

It would be impossible to think of my body or my head or my mind.

because the I would be totally fused with whatever we are saying is “my”. We couldn’t differentiate I as a possessor of whatever it is. It would be the same thing. Then, four:

When the body and mind no longer exist, the self would no longer exist.

So, at the end of this life, when the aggregates of this life cease, then the self would totally discontinue. That is in a [inaudible] when things inherently arise and disintegrate. Of course, when they don’t inherently arise and disintegrate, when we die, the body has a continuity. The mind has a continuity. When we die, the body becomes the lunch of the worms. The mind goes into the next life. That is because things are not inherently existing. If they were, then everything when it ended would just finish, that’s it. In which case, the self would also finish. Then five:

Since the body and mind are plural, one person’s selves would also be plural.

If you said, “I am my body and I am my mind,” then there are two I’s. Or if we say, the five aggregates, “I am my five aggregates,” then since there are five aggregates, there are five me’s. Or, if there is just one me, then you have to say, one thing is me. You couldn’t have more than one thing. Then six:

Since the I is just one, mind and body would also have to be one.

Then seven:

Just as mind and body are produced and disintegrate, so it too would have to be asserted that the ‘I’ is inherently produced and inherently disintegrates. In this case, neither the pleasurable effects of virtuous actions, nor the painful effects of non-virtuous actions, would bear fruit for us or we would be experiencing the effects of actions we did not do.

Both of which don’t make any sense.

What we are seeing in this whole negation is that we believe that the I exists this way. If the I really existed this way, these would be the consequences of it existing in that way. Do those consequences make sense? No, they don’t make any sense at all. Then from that, you draw the conclusion that, then the I doesn’t exist inherently in the way that it appears. If all the things that it says, “Well, if it exists inherently, then this and this and this would happen. If all those things made sense, then the self, the I, the person would inherently exist.” But none of those things make any sense. It is a way of reasoning that we use a lot. The examples I choose [laughter] You know who my topic of examples is. But you can see—if this person, dare I, if ‘beep’ were appropriate to be elected President, then he would be consistent in what he says. He would unify the country. He would be a good representative for us in front of the United Nations. Do you see any of those? No. Therefore, not a good candidate for President. Do you get what I am saying? It is that line of reasoning. It is a good example, isn’t it? It is that example of the kind of reasoning that you would use and none of the consequences hold. So the only thing you can do is negate the thesis and say it can’t be like that. Sorry if I offended anybody. You can riot outdoors. [laughter]

Remember what is inherently established cannot be included within the same continuum but must be unrelatedly different. Understanding this depends on getting an accurate sense of how the I and other phenomena usually appear to you to be self-instituting and how you usually accept that appearance and then act on the basis of it.

The way the I appears, here I am and then we act on the basis of accepting—here I am, and then all the other assumptions that come with “here I am,” like, “I should always get my way. Everybody should always like me. My ideas are the best.” This is the kind of exaggerated existence that we are investigating.

Chapter 14 is analyzing difference. This is the fourth point. The first point was identifying the object of negation. The second was saying that if the I existed that way, it would have to be either completely one with the aggregates or totally separate. The last chapter was analyzing if it was completely one with the aggregates. This chapter is analyzing if it is completely separate.

A quote here from Nagarjuna, from Precious Garland, (airing Thursday nights at 6:00 Pacific Standard Time):

Just as it is known that an image of one’s face is seen dependent on a mirror, but does not really exist as a face, so the conception of I exists dependent on mind and body, but like the image of a face, the I does not at all exist in its own reality.

When you look in the mirror, it looks like there is a person there, right? It looks like there is a person there. Sometimes you even talk to that person. Sometimes you spit at that person. It looks like there is a person there. Is there a person in the mirror? No. Is there nothing there? No. There is an appearance of a person, but that appearance is false. It doesn’t exist the way it appears. It appears to be a real person, but it isn’t, but that appearance is a dependent arising phenomena because you have to have the mirror, the external person, light, standing at a certain angle. So the reflection, the face in the mirror, doesn’t appear causelessly out of nowhere. It is a dependent phenomenon, but it is not a real person, and it can’t perform the function of a real person. If it could, when you didn’t feel like going to work you could send your reflection. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? In the same way, the self, the I, appears to be truly existent, but that is a false appearance. It doesn’t, in fact, exist that way. But it does exist dependently, depending on causes and conditions, the basis of designation, the mind that names and labels it, its parts.

Now, analyze whether the I and the mind body could be different.

Actually, the body mind and the I are different. They are not exactly the same. But are they inherently different? In general, things can be different but they can be related, but if things are inherently different, they can’t be related in any way at all. So the body mind and the I are related, but they are different things because you can’t interchange one for the other. They are different but they are not inherently different, because inherently different things wouldn’t have any relationship at all, period. It would be like ISIS and the United States. They are just totally separate even though there is a relationship there.

Consider the following implications—mental and physical things are called compound phenomena because they are produced, abide, and disintegrate moment by moment. These characteristics reveal that mental and physical factors exist due to specific causes and conditions and are therefore impermanent.

That’s ok so far, right?

If the I on one hand and the whole range of impermanent phenomena on the other hand, were inherently different, the I would absurdly not have the characteristics of impermanent phenomena namely being produced, abiding and disintegrating.

Because they would be totally unrelated. The way it is now, the I is related to all impermanent phenomena because it falls in the category of impermanent phenomena. They are related. If they don’t have any relationship, then the I could not be an impermanent phenomenon, because they wouldn’t have any characteristics that were the same.

Just like a horse, because of being a different entity from an elephant, does not have the particular features of an elephant.

A horse and an elephant are unrelated. They are unrelated. They have a common ancestor.

As Chandrakirti says, if the self is asserted to be different from the mind and body, then just as consciousness is different from body, the self would be established as having a character (or a nature) entirely different from mind and body.

Mind and body would have one kind of characteristics, self would have another. They would be really isolated. Just as you could have your horse here and your elephant here, even though they had a common ancestor, you could have I here and the body mind here. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? Wherever you have the body and mind, and you have the person, don’t you? Can you have the combination of body and mind without having the person there? No. There is going to be a person there.

As Chandrakirti says, if the self is asserted to be different from the mind and body then just as consciousness is different from body, the self would be established as having a character entirely different from mind and body. Again, if the I and the body mind were inherently different, the I would have to be something falsely imagined or a permanent phenomenon.

It wouldn’t share any characteristics with impermanent things.

It also could not have the particular characteristics of either body or mind and thus would have to be observed entirely separately from the body and mind.

But you can’t identify a person without there being a body and mind. Can you? What is the difference between a scarecrow and a person? There is a body with the scarecrow, but there is no mind. Wherever there is a body and mind you are going to have a person. What is death? The body and mind split. They are no longer in relationship to each other. That is all death is.

When you search for what the I is, you would have to come up with something separate from the mind and body, but you cannot.

We try: “Oh, the I is separate from the body mind.” Because the body and mind change, they arise, and they die in each lifetime but, “I am a permanent soul. The essence of me is something permanent that continues from one life to the other without being changed at all.” We make up that kind of theory. Or sometimes we even feel there is a real me. “I don’t need to be afraid of death, the body dies, and the mind disappears, but I, I am still there.” We develop that kind of feeling within us too, don’t we? Some inherently existent thing that is really me, that is separate from the body and mind.

I watched one movie, this was a long time ago, they were talking about this family and, what happened? The husband died and was reborn as the dog that came to be the family’s dog. Something like that. They showed at the time the husband was in an accident, and there was this amorphous thing that kind of lifted up out of his body and went (across) and then there was a dog. And then the dog knew everything about the family because it was exactly the same as the husband, no change at all. So the dog comes back to the house and starts acting like the husband. An interesting movie. [laughter]

The I is perceived only in the context of the body and mind. As Chandrakirti says, there is no self other than the mind body complex because apart from the mind body complex, its conception does not exist.

In other words, there is no idea of a person separate from the mind body complex. If there were no minds and bodies, would you have any idea of a person? No. The I and the mind body are related, but they are not inherently the same. Here is another meditative reflection to contemplate:

Consider the consequences if the I is established in and of itself in accordance with how it appears to our minds and if it is also inherently different from the mind body. What would happen? The I and the mind body would have to be completely separate.

Here is your body and mind and you are across the room. Entirely separate.

In that case, the I would have to be findable after clearing away the body and mind.

So you could get rid of the body and mind and still have a person left over. That doesn’t make sense.

The I would not have the characteristics of production, abiding and disintegration.

Because it would be inherently different from the body and mind. That’s ridiculous.

The I would absurdly have to be a figment of the imagination

something you totally made up that didn’t really exist, or it would have to be like a permanent soul, because it couldn’t be an impermanent thing. If it is not impermanent, then it is either totally fictitious and nonexistent or its permanent, meaning it doesn’t change. But you can’t say the self is either one of those.

Then absurdly the I would not have any physical or mental characteristics.

Exactly. What good is it? How would you identify it. What would it do?

These kinds of reasons and the consequences—you have to think about again and again and again. It is not easy. What His Holiness puts in this little book: at the monasteries, they would spend years studying and debating. This is a condensation of a lot of stuff.

Here is another quotation from Nagarjuna.

The reality is later ascertained of what was formally imagined by ignorance.

So, ignorance imagined an inherently existent me. That was what was formally imaged by ignorance, and when we generate wisdom, the reality is ascertained. That what ignorance apprehends is nonexistent. Our thing is we think that what ignorance apprehends exists, exactly as it appears, nonerroneously. But what ignorance apprehends, a truly existent me or a truly existent anything, such a thing is totally nonexistent. So Lama told us we were hallucinating all of the time, that’s the meaning here. What happens with wisdom is it ascertains the opposite of what ignorance apprehends. The opposite of what ignorance grasps is what wisdom sees. Ignorance grasps at truly existent me. Wisdom sees the emptiness, or the lack of, the absence of, of that truly existent me.

Because ignorance is a wrong conception, therefore, by generating wisdom, we can get rid of the ignorance. So by realizing emptiness, we get rid of the ignorance. That ceases. But the object that the ignorance apprehends, the truly existent I or the truly existent body mind, whatever, that thing never existed to start with. So like I was saying this morning, wisdom doesn’t destroy the existence of phenomena, it just sees that what ignorance apprehended doesn’t exist and that will overcome the ignorance. So ignorance is the only thing that gets destroyed in this process.

It’s like, maybe you are a little kid, and you really believe there is Santa Claus. How many of you believed there was a Santa Claus when you were little? You really believed there was Santa Claus and when you grew up and you figured out that Santa Claus didn’t really exist, did Santa Claus get destroyed? No, he never existed to start with. What changed is that you realized that what you were believing in before was erroneous. Until you went to the shopping mall and there was Santa again. [laughter]

We believe so many things that don’t exist. When you really start practicing Dharma, that is what you see more and more—how much you believe that has nothing to do with reality. We believe so many things that are totally nonexistent, and we don’t even realize it. Even when the Buddha points it out to us, we fight him and say, “But, but, but, but, but.” One good example, you can really see this, is, what is our body? What makes the body? In our culture the body is beautiful, isn’t it? As long as you’re young or when you’re old if you do all sorts… We look at the body as something beautiful and as a source of pleasure. Is the body beautiful? You peel away the skin, and put it here, you take out the tongue and put it there, put one eyeball over here and one eyeball over there, a nose, take out the intestines and weave them in a pretty pattern, put two ears on top as decoration, put your brain over here and then your liver and your kidneys, make your kidneys kind of one on each side, there they are. Put your spleen out there, and your heart and the ribs. Is that beautiful? No. Is that what the body is? Yes. Does something inside you say, “I don’t like this. Don’t tell me this. I don’t want to hear this.” That’s what I meant—you take the skin off and you put it here, you just peel the skin off and put it right there. Have you ever been to an autopsy? It is very interesting in an autopsy. They cut here and then they pull the scalp back. It comes right back. [laughter] Is that really beautiful? [laughter]

Nagarjuna has a whole section about this in Precious Garland. He says seeing the kind of disgustingness of the body or the filth of the body is something we can see with our own eyes. You don’t have to use fancy reasoning. Is it one? Is it different? You don’t have to identify an object of negation. You just open your eyes, and see what is inside the body. But even that is very difficult to hold on to and to maintain in mind, because we have such a strong belief that the body is really beautiful.

Audience: inaudible

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I was in Russia, and I was teaching the mindfulness of the body, and there was one woman there who was an artist, and she was saying the same thing. When you are an artist, you are taught to look at the curves of the body and different things of the body and produce this beautiful image of the body. But an image of the body is not the body. If you open that up, you are going to find incense and mantra rolls. As we know, don’t we? [laughter] If you open this thing up you are going to find blood and guts.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: It’s not inherently disgusting, but it is disgusting. [laughter] Remember there is a difference between inherently and just regular old.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, exactly. And that shows how easily deceived our mind is and how we believe in the false things that we apprehend and how much resistance we have to hearing that they are false things.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, there is a lot of suffering.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, that’s why you are always going to do a good business selling things that try and clean the body and make it look and smell and feel nicer.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: I don’t think they’d say that aesthetically it’s beautiful. They would have maybe an admiration for how the body functions, but I don’t think the doctor would go and kiss the corpse. But that’s a different viewpoint. When you look at the aestheticness of the body. If you were in one of these countries where you go to the market and there is an IED and instead of bringing back tomatoes and apples, you are looking at body parts in the marketplace. Are you going to say, “How beautiful.” No. That’s not beautiful.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes, but they are analyzing whether it makes good tripe or whether it makes this or that. Whether they look at it as aesthetically beautiful, whether they look at it as clean, is different. Yes, because he is able to shut down part of his mind.

I remember when I was asked to teach about the four mindfulnesses at Maitripa College, which is a college for Buddhists. People there had the same reaction as you do. Here is one of the first teachings that the Buddha gave: when you practice the 37 harmonies with the enlightenment, the four establishments of mindfulness, the first set, the first among those, is mindfulness of the body and that is for seeing the body as foul. We Buddhists know all about that—until we have to think about it. And then are you watching how our mind goes, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s nice theoretically, but my boyfriend is really hot. That liver, I tell you, his liver is the best thing you have ever seen.”

Audience: inaudible

VTC: When I meditate on what my body consists of, yes, I have that experience of, there is absolutely nothing here worthy of being attached to. Yes, there is nothing here that is beautiful that is worthy of my attachment, period. When it comes time to die, why do I want to hold on to this thing?

Audience: inaudible

VTC: That is what our ignorant mind does. Yes, and that’s why there is anguish at the time of death, because we don’t want to separate from this lump of different stuff. Shantideva—read Shantideva, chapter eight or Precious Garland, the verses in the 100s or 200s—and then look at your own body. But what I am getting at is, do you see the resistance we have? We believe so many things that are false, but we have tremendous resistance to acknowledging that our ideas are false.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: They may see conventional beauty, but not inherently existent beauty. We see inherently existent beauty, and we hold on to it. The Lamas may look at a beautiful flower and at the same time they are looking at the beautiful flower, they know that tomorrow it is wilted, so there is no attachment to it. We see the beautiful flower and “I want to preserve it, I want to take it home with me and make it continue to exist and reproduce, etc.’”

Audience: inaudible

VTC: What it does is, it brings in your mind an awareness, like if somebody gives you this brand-new car, your mind says, “The car is already broken.” It’s not really already broken, but it has the nature of breaking in it, and you know sooner or later it’s going to break. So you drive the car, but you don’t expect the car to last forever. You know it is going to break.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: Yes. One of my books is called Don’t Believe Everything You Think. It is called that for a reason, because we have to examine our thoughts because a lot of what we think is wrong. I am not just talking about who you vote for. That is your own thing. You can pick whoever you want to vote for. But some of the other conceptions that we believe, they are blatantly incorrect. But we don’t see it.

His Holiness says,

In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Fifth Dalai Lama emphasized how important it is for analysis not to become rote, but to be lively. When you search for such a concretely existent I and do not find it, as either the same as or inherently different from the body and mind, it is crucial that the search be thorough, otherwise you will not feel the impact of not finding it.

If you just say, “Oh yes, if the I exists just as it appears, it would be the body or it would be the mind, or it would be neither. Well, it is not the body, and it is not the mind, it’s not neither, it’s not totally separate, end of discussion.” It’s not going to affect your mind.

The Fifth Dalai Lama wrote, “It is not sufficient that the mode of non-finding be just a repetition of the impoverished phrase, “not found.” For example, when an ox is lost, one does not take as true the mere statement, “it is not in such and such an area.”

You lost your pet dog, and somebody tells you, “Oh, it’s not in the neighbor’s yard.” Are you just going to take that? No, you are going to look in the neighbor’s yard anyway, because you want to find your dog.

“Rather, by thoroughly searching for it in the high land, the middle land, and the low land, of the area, you come to a firm decision that it cannot be found. You really have to search everywhere. Here also, by meditating until a conclusion is reached, you gain conviction. Once you engage in analyzing in this way, you will begin to question the strong sense of the self-instituting I that earlier seemed to exist so palpably. You will gradually start to think, “Aha! Previously this seemed to be so true, but maybe it really isn’t.”

Then as you analyze more and more, you will become convinced, not just superficially, but from the very depth of your heart, that such an I does not exist at all. You will pass beyond mere words and gain conviction that, although it appears so concretely, it does not exist that way. This is the imprint of extended analysis, a decision from within your mind, that this sort of I does really not exist.

If you look at the face in the mirror or you look at the people in the TV, they all appear so real, but you examine every single aspect of that mirror, of that reflection to see if any of it is a real person. You look inside the screen of the TV to see if there are any real people in there. When you do this kind of very comprehensive analysis, and you can’t find what you are looking for, then you realize “Oh, what I thought was there, wasn’t there. It wasn’t there.” You want to make chocolate chip cookies, you look all over the kitchen for chocolate chips. You unload the refrigerator, you unload the freezer, you empty out all of the shelves looking for the chocolate chips. You don’t just say, somebody else said, “Oh, we don’t have any chocolate chips.” When you really want chocolate chip cookies, you go through everything looking for those chocolate chips, and you don’t find any. At that moment it is like, “No chocolate chips here.” What you thought was there, “I am sure we had chocolate chips.” What we thought was there doesn’t exist.

So this me that I am so sure exists, that I structure my whole life around, this is no trivial thing. Everything I do in my life is structured around the belief that there is this real me and you search high and you search low and if it existed in that way, you should find it, and you can’t find it because it doesn’t exist. It is pretty shocking to realize it, but when you have a lot of merit and you realize that the ignorance that has been grasping on to that I so tightly, is the source of your suffering, then when you can’t find that I, you feel relieved. If you don’t have a lot of merit and you really think that there really is an I, then when you can’t find it, it is quite jarring. So that’s why they say it is very important to accumulate merit, and it is really important to really see how ignorance is the source of the afflictions and how the afflictions produce karma and how karma produces rebirth and how rebirth is unsatisfactory by nature. When you really understand all those kinds of connections, then when you see there is no I, it is like, “Wow, what a relief.”

His Holiness is talking about his own experience here:

Often when I am about to give a lecture to a large number of people, I notice that to my mind each person in the audience seems to exist on his or her own respective seat through his or her own power rather than existing only through the power of thought.

Of course, we look around and see that there are people sitting on their own chairs, aren’t there? They are real people that exist from their own side. We don’t look around this room and say, “All these people exist just by the power of thought.” Do we? No, they are real people. That’s the way it appears, and that’s what we think. So His Holiness is saying, when he sits down to give a lecture, that’s the way things appear to him. They look like they exist through their own power, rather than existing only through the power of thought, existing only conventionally. Conventionally means, through the power of thought. It means fabricated by mind.

They all seem to exist in a condition of exaggerated solidity. This is how they seem, how they appear, how they dawn to my mind. But if things did exist this way, they would have to be findable through the type of examination I have just described, whereas they cannot. There is a conflict between how they appear, and how they actually exist.

They appear real, objective, out there, existing from their own side, but that is not how they actually exist. It is a false appearance, just as the appearance of people inside the TV screen is a false appearance. There are no people inside that TV screen.

Therefore, I call to mind whatever I know about selflessness, reflecting for instance on Nagarjuna’s statement in his Fundamental Treatise on the Middle, Called “Wisdom” where he examines whether the Buddha inherently exists.

This is where Nagarjuna is negating the inherent existence even of the Buddha, let alone us.

The Buddha is not his mind body complex. He is not other than his mind body complex. The mind body complex is not in him. He is not in it. He does not possess it. What Buddha is there?

This is a whole analysis that I think we’re going to save for tomorrow morning because we won’t get through it in a few more minutes. So maybe we can do some Q and A.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: So, what she’s getting at: Tsongkhapa talks about how do you tell if something exists? There are three criteria for conventional existence. First is, it is renowned in the world. That doesn’t mean that everyone believes it, or everyone knows about it, but it is just a general knowable thing. The second is, it is not refuted by a conventional valid cognizer or a conventional reliable cognizer. So this is a mind that is able to discern conventionalities correctly. If I said that this was a kangaroo (holding a flask), somebody would say, “No, this is not a kangaroo.” They have a conventional reliable cognizer that negates what I believe. Even though everybody may believe it’s a kangaroo, it may not be, because somebody who actually sees things conventionally as they are, can negate it. The third thing is that they are not negated by a reasoning consciousness analyzing the ultimate. That kind of mind would negate a truly existent thing. When you see that to be established as existent you need those three characteristics, and then you see that a lot of the things we believe in—for example, maybe you are inherently existent or maybe they’re just conventionally, they aren’t true—then we see that a lot of what we believe, we misapprehend.

That is what you are getting at, right? We want to find something, but the conditions for existence are actually flimsy, but they are difficult to fulfill in comparison to the way that we grasp things right now. One of my teachers, when he was talking about how conventional things exist, was saying they barely exist. They barely exist because we have this notion of solidity and that is completely out of the window.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: They are related, but they are very different. Self-centeredness is thinking, “My suffering, my happiness are more important than anybody else’s.” It’s based on thinking that there is a big me. But even arhats, who have negated a solid me, still have the thought, “My liberation is more important.” Even though the arhats don’t grasp at a truly existent self, there is still the self-centeredness that says, “My liberation is the thing that I am working for.”

Audience: inaudible

VTC: At the gross level it can because our very gross self-centeredness is the screaming three-year-old inside of us that says, “I want this.” That is self-centeredness but it is based on “I want this,” that I is that inherently existent one with the appearance of the inherently existent I. It’s an innate grasping. There is a form of grasping at true existence that is learned, that is acquired, but that one that just comes up spontaneously, even in babies and animals, that one’s innate.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: A conventional reliable cognizer. This is one of the tricky things because our idea is, “OK, here is a conventional reliable cognizer. Here is a conventionally existent object, independent of the cognizer. This is the conventional reliable cognizer independent of the object,” and somehow they just bump into each other. That’s how we think of it. (Nodding no). One form of dependence is mutual dependence. The way you ascertain a conventional valid cognizer is that it realizes a conventionally existent object. The way that it is a conventionally existent object is because it is realized by a conventional reliable cognizer.

A conventional reliable cognizer is one that, first of all, can’t be affected by sources of error. For example, when you are in a vehicle, it looks like the land past you is moving. You’re speeding along, and it looks like, “Oh, all the trees are moving.” That’s not a conventional valid cognizer. It is erroneous because we’re moving, not the trees. And somebody who is standing on the ground can look at it and say, “No, the trees are not moving, you’re moving.” So a conventional reliable cognizer is not skewed by a… if you have cataracts—tell me if I am wrong, Ken—if you look at something with cataracts, they appear kind of fuzzy. That eye consciousness that’s seeing things as fuzzy is erroneous, because there is an impairment with the sense power that is perceiving the things because there is the cataract in the way.

When we have wrong views, and we are holding on to wrong views, that’s another impediment that will skew the way we apprehend things. For example, if we have this very strong thing if the body is beautiful, then whenever we look at the body, it looks like this fantastic thing, and we have great difficulty seeing it in another way. A conventional reliable cognizer is not tainted by any of those kinds of errors, either by having the wrong views, by having the sense power being defective, by the relationship between the subject and object. All these kinds of things that can invalidate a perception or a conception.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: He thinks it’s a conventional reliable cognizer, but everybody else can look and there is no person there. So what he is perceiving is refuted by other people’s conventional reliable cognizers. Sometimes you need a crowd. Sometimes you just need one individual that can see things clearly. Sometimes a whole group of people see things incorrectly. For example, people who believe that there is a permanent soul. People who believe that there is a creator God. There are a whole lot of people that believe that. But those views, those beliefs, can be refuted by reasoning consciousnesses, and we can show that it is impossible for those kinds of things to exist even though people believe strongly in them.

It is kind of like the emperor’s new clothes. Remember that story? And everybody believes that the emperor has new clothes because that was what they were told until one little kid said, “The emperor is naked.” It doesn’t have to be a group that agrees. It can just be one person that sees accurately.

Audience: inaudible

VTC: When we are talking about karma bringing its results, the immediate results of the action are not the results of the karma. When we talk about karmic results, generally they manifest much later. So if somebody comes and punches me in the face, they are creating the karma of punching somebody in the face. I am experiencing the result of a karma I created a long time ago of harming somebody. What I’m experiencing is not the karmic result of his (punching), it is the karmic result of my own negative action. Yes, his action influences me and it affects me but that is not the karmic result.

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.