Even Ants Have It



This week has been distinguished by a volley of medical tests including a bone marrow biopsy to see the state of play re my stem cell transplant. It was conducted a year ago (see Shell Pink) but I am still very much convalescent, there have been complications in the form of graft-versus-host disease (nicknamed GVHD in the still highly experimental organ-transplant industry) and the word “remission” has never been used. Consequently, I have been in a rather reflective mood, not pensive exactly, but kind of subdued. For this reason, I thought to enjoy the temper of the moment and reflect on the most immediate previous posts before posting more material. Or rather, I thought to share how I regard the shape or momentum of recent posts in order to inspire you to happily and energetically pursue what I know has recently been challenging material. I have been mulling over that but have concluded, I trust wisely, that the degree of difficulty is necessary. Why not even applauded? This is because the stakes of not understanding further how we are to navigate between the extremes of reified existence and total non-existence are dire. Hence the precious rarity of attainment of the Middle Way, not to mention discovery of how to actually fulfill the Bodhisattva’s vow, a task contingent on the extended soaring wings of both method and wisdom.

As Geshe Sonam Rinchen says, “You must become aware of how the misconception of the self is responsible for your disturbing emotions and faulty actions.” In order to even begin to do this we need to “examine closely how the misconception functions, how it perceives the object on which it focuses and how it causes disturbing emotions to arise.”[1]

Bearing upon the same essential, Lama Zopa Rinpoche in the last four posts introduced, via dynamic practical examples, how the four Buddhist tenet systems variously assert the object of negation.

In Everything Comes From the Mind Lama Zopa Rinpoche described how “to meditate on the emptiness of phenomena, just as we do with the selflessness of person, we need to familiarize ourselves with how the object of negation is a hallucination. Also, we must also learn to see [recognise] it as such.”

To start gaining such familiarity, the illustration of how the letter M is merely labeled was used to show how “everything comes from the mind.” We were encouraged to meditate on this not just when doing our meditation but also “during break times.”

In What Appears Back, Lama Zopa Rinpoche detailed how, according to the Prāsaṅgikas, the M appears back to you in a way that is not just merely labeled by mind. It appears to be some thing slightly more than that—something appearing from there. So that subtle hallucination is the object to be refuted.” In Tsongkhapa’s words: “It is the “entity of phenomena not depending on or not posited through the force of another–a subjective terminological conceptual consciousness–is called the self that is the object of negation.”[2] This was contrasted to the Svātantrika Mādhyamaka (Middle Way Autonomist) position that “though the M is labeled by the mind there should be something from its own side. Therefore–for them–it is not merely labeled by the mind.” [3]

In Is the Supermarket in the Mind of Not? the Cittamātra, or Mind Only position was playfully logically interrogated: “So then we have dinner in the mind. From the cook who is in the mind. From a plate that is in the mind. Spoon that is in the mind. Go to the toilet that is in the mind.” If we don’t allow for the nominal existence of external things then we are left with such solipsistic consequences. It is useful here to consider how external only exists in relation to internal just as does here and there. Thus, due to existing only in mutual dependency, neither can exist in-and-of-itself, that is, independently, right there on the spot where it appears to be. Without our body, for example, we can’t posit an outside or beyond of the body; nor internal organs, nor even internal space for that matter. All our temporal-spatial awareness is predicated and reliant upon our current embodiment just as it is upon our concept and act of mental attribution via label or name. It is in this sense that what is external comes from the mind. See This Side That Side for further exploration.

In Using Examples to Identify the Hallucinated Self, the pressing task of identifying the most subtle object of negation–that presented by the Prāsaṅgika–was vividly conveyed via the example of a merely labeled person, a man called “Jean Paul” but, of course, we were being asked to substitute our own name and hence directly, nakedly, confront the issue of what might and might not be our (innate) personal identity: what we feel to be essentially “me” and “mine.” It was also proposed that this same analysis seamlessly extends to interrogation of the “I” or “self” that is imputed in dependence on the personal aggregates. In this way we are led to fluently navigate from the seemingly abstract or “objective” example of the letter M written or orchestrated on the school blackboard to an intensely subjective or intra-personal investigation of how we exist- as a (putatively-possible or mere) person. Or can we exist in somehow otherwise absolute or ultimate terms? Really? These are key issues to be captured by rigorous meditative analysis, even at the risk of our superficial security, our worldly complacency, being taunted and disturbed.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, very significantly, situates the tenet positions in relation to the “I” not in terms of any theoretical commitment, that is, commitment to theory as theory, but in terms of how, in meditation, we actually encounter the various tenet positions or stances regarding the object of negation experientially: we run hard up against them, in a staggered sequence of escalating or more penetrating cognitive collisions, as it were, starting with the Great Exposition School and ending with apprehension of the object of negation as conceived and held by innate self-grasping ignorance: a form so deeply imbedded  that it exceeds or performs beneath all learnt or artificially acquired tenets.

Even ants have it.


This is our real target in meditation. Not ants, but meditation on the operational mode of innate self-grasping. Complete with grasping defensively primed pincers! This is no simple intellectual game or intending-to-be-clever exercise. As Geshe Sonam Rinchen  observes:

Many types of misconception regarding the self exist, some of which result from speculation about its nature or from adherence to particular philosophical views, but here we are concerned with our instinctive and innate misconception of self. This focuses on the validly existent self and distorts it in such a way that it is held to be truly or inherently existent. It regards the self not as something merely attributed but as an independent entity with objective existence. The misconception of the self is operative when the self not only appears to have true existence but we assent to that appearance. The truly existent self–something entirely nonexistent–to which the misconception clings is the object of negation. Identify this fabrication clearly by allowing that self to appear to vividly that you feel you could reach out and touch it.[4]

Viewed in this experiential investigative manner, the tenets cease to appear as demonstrations of intellectual dexterity and philosophical prowess and are revealed instead, as precisely calculated stepping stones carrying us towards definitive final understanding. In this way we also avoid any tendency to denigrate or dismiss so-called “lower” tenets as somehow naïve or crass and only worthy of (contemptuous?) dismissal. Again, as Geshe Sonam Rinchen details in perfect counterpoint to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s account (I quote at some length due to the considerable importance of this point):

Since you want to understand emptiness in order to free yourself from suffering and since this entails tackling your fundamental misconception of the self, everything hinges on properly identifying what you are searching for. The four schools of philosophical tenets posit the object of negation differently. Their assertions begin with the coarser levels of fabrication and end up with the most subtle.

For the Vaibhashikas the self which is negated is a permanent, single, independent entity–permanent in that it does not change from moment by moment, single in that it does not have parts; and independent in that it does not depend on causes and conditions. For Sautrantikas the self which is negated is more subtle. They assert that the person is an imputation and that the object of negation is a self-sufficient substantially existent self. For Chittamatrins, who hold that forms and the awarenesses which perceive them both result from the same imprint and are not different entities, any kind of external existence or existence independent from the perceiving awareness is the object of negation. For the Svatantrika branch of the Madhyamika school, who contend that everything exists both from its own side as well as through being posited by a non-defective awareness, existence exclusively from a thing’s own side without being thus posited is the object of negation. For the Prasangika branch of the Madhyamika school who maintain that all things are mere attributions, any kind of existence that is not posited by awareness is the object of negation.[5]

Geshe Sonam Rinchen highlights how although “all these schools of thought employ the reason of dependent arising to refute their specific object of negation” (I bid) how they do this, or at what level of understanding of dependent arising they perform (in order to do this), also significantly differs. Indeed, this is because what they consider dependence to mean is itself predicated upon how they assert/hold things to exist and vice versa, for the dynamic is reciprocal. This also means that in meditating on emptiness via the tenets, we are also necessarily developing an ever-deepening penetration of the pervasive scope and subtlety of dependent arising:

The Vaibhashikas, Sautrantikas and Chittamatrins, who are proponents of true existence, use the reason of dependence on causes and conditions. This however, only establishes the dependently arising nature of impermanent but not of permanent phenomena, namely those which do not undergo change from moment to moment. Svatantrikas use in addition the reason of dependence on parts, which applies to both permanent and impermanent phenomena, while Prasangika add dependence on a basis of attribution and on the attributing thought.[6]

He now adds a fascinating caveat:

This most subtle level of dependence cannot serve as a means to induce understanding of emptiness, since it is only understood fully once emptiness has been cognized. It is most fruitful, therefore, to concentrate your efforts on thinking about the generally accepted aspects of dependent arising–dependence on causes and conditions and on parts.[7]

It is obvious that Lama Zopa Rinpoche has been illustrating in the three last posts (see above) how things are dependent upon causes and conditions. We would never have capacity to read without the pre-requisite causes and facilitating conditions such as teachers, education, access to a coherent and living language system, sufficient intelligence to learn, the cognitive apparatus with which to perceive the mark that is “written” on the blackboard, confirmation that the connections we make between physical marks and sounds are sensible, valid interpretations (we have not mistaken one letter for another) etc.

Likewise, it has been vividly demonstrated how the Letter M, as was the woman labeled mother, or the man labeled Jean Paul, or the I, were each labeled in dependence on their parts. Further to this end, Lama Zopa Rinpoche invited us to consider that it was awareness of the base of designation (e.g. the parts in dependence upon which M is labeled) that acted as reason for the act of labeling to be initiated, that is, even get to occur:

Therefore, if there was no base, no aggregates, no association of body and mind, even though the parents might have the thought to label “Jan Paul”, at that time, Jan Paul doesn’t exist. There is no way for him to exist. If Jan Paul exists he must perform the actions. To perform the actions, the base (the aggregates) has to exist and do the actions. With that base as the reason you label ‘Jan Paul’ is there.” Or “Jan Paul is experiencing happiness or suffering.” Or “Jan Paul is growing.”

But it was also emphasized that the base is not itself the object designated or labeled to it Nor can or could it ever be: if the line on the blackboard was already M or the child in the womb already Jean Paul, then the M and infant Jean Paul would appear as such independently of the parents’ naming or any requirement for the endorsement of a subsequent act of naming. In other words, labeling would be redundant, superfluous to the already always intact designated/nominated  identity of that thing. Yet, at the same time, in the investigation of the Mind Only position, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, during the debate with the student, also threw in the most tantalizing and perplexing complication: even the base must come from the mind in the sense that it also is merely labeled–as a base–and thus can’t exist apart from being designated by thought, which is to say that even if the base is composed of external parts, say the legs and surface in functional dependence upon which we label “table,” they must come from the mind! The logic is irresistible. In Is the Supermarket in the Mind Lama Zopa declared:

If the label is inside the mind, the base must be also inside the mind. It’s exactly the same. This is because the base is also a label. What is called base is a name! So it is in the mind right? It is the same as what we call the I. The I is labeled on the aggregates which are the base. But the aggregates are also a label because the general aggregates are labeled onto the collection of five.

Yet, conversely, if there is no base there upon which to label, there is no I, or Jan Paul, or whatever:

Therefore, if there was no base, no aggregates, no association of body and mind, even though the parents might have the thought to label “Jan Paul”, at that time, Jan Paul doesn’t exist. There is no way for him to exist. If Jan Paul exists he must perform the actions. To perform the actions, the base (the aggregates) has to exist and do the actions. With that base as the reason you label “Jan Paul is there.” Or “Jan Paul is experiencing happiness or suffering.” Or “Jan Paul is growing.”

In this accumulative manner, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has been carefully positioning the crucial interdependency of the three spheres themselves: those of label, act of labeling and base. To remove one is to have the whole edifice of possibility of valid conventional existence collapse. So, returning to Geshe Sonam Rinchen’s perhaps cautionary caveat that dependence on labeling (as the most subtle level of dependence) cannot “serve as a means to induce understanding of emptiness, since it is only understood fully once emptiness has been cognized” we are nonetheless to be thoroughly reassured that Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s presentation is powerfully and intricately formulated to induce understanding of these three levels of dependency in order that we might begin to recognize how we must commence a radical endeavor: analytically interrogate the (apparent but mistaken) reality of things and, in particular, research what it is that we are aiming to exactly refute in order to realize emptiness.

In this regard, we are to be supported, buoyed up, rather than dismayed, by the also radical implications of our discovery, upon analysis, of the sheer unfindability of not just the conventionally imputed thing but, also, or more particularly (for this is the actual aim of our endeavor), the referent object of the conception of inherent existence itself. In Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s words:

According to the Prāsaṅgikas, if you can find the I on these aggregates, then that means it is truly existent and existent from its own side. It has to be! But, in reality, you cannot find it, whether you search from the tip of the hairs of the head down to the tips of the toes, even to the tip of the nose, and inside the nose, and then even, if they are present, the hairs of the nose!

This unfindability should not be a product of (intellectually) understanding the different schools but of one’s own research and experience.[8]

What such sheer unfindability itself indicates is something quite remarkable and perhaps, at least initially, counter-intuitive: it is because things are empty that they can function; and they can function because they are empty. The crunch: it is only because things can’t be found upon ultimate analysis that we can establish them as conventionally existent; illusory-like things can function. If they existed inherently, this couldn’t be so.[9]

In the next post Is There An Elephant in the House, Lama Zopa Rinpoche will conclude what he humorously calls completion of the “discussion of the piles of wrong views we have when M appears to us!”

That the powerful sequential line of investigation has revolved around a single alphabet letter is not only a potent in its capacity to sharply hone our analytical focus, but it also proposes how we must, in our own time and space, execute precisely such analyses as we go about our daily business: how is this room which is merely labeled in dependent upon the base appearing back as something more than that? This foot? This friend?  This blog page? In this way, we stand chance of pushing beyond some trite and even slick belief/conceit that because we have read a few books, or listened to a few teachings, or learnt a few key terms such as objective existence and base of designation, we are surely poised on the mystic verge of inestimably accomplished special insight into the way of things! Golly gosh!  If only.

The last word here is again by Geshe Sonam Rinchen:

Familiarity with the philosophy of the Middle Way may make us adept at using the terminology. Phrases like “empty of inherent existence” and “not truly existent” roll glibly off our tongues, while actually we assent and hold fast to the objective and independent existence of things. At present we cannot distinguish between existence and true existence, nor between lack of inherent existence and non-existence, except verbally.

Unless we establish for ourselves the non-existence of even the most subtle object of negation or impossible mode of existence to which we adhere, and if we continue to take things to be in any way truly or inherently existent, we hold a view of reified existence or eternalism which simply reinforces the misconception that imprison us in cyclic existence. There are four systems of philosophical tenets in Buddhism which superficially appear to contradict each other but which actually lead to progressively subtler levels of understanding. They are like the essential rungs of a ladder which allow us to reach the supreme understanding of reality. Each of us needs to use all the rungs.[10]

That is why the topic of tenets, though challenging, maybe at the outset daunting, will return to this blog on frequent occasions with my precious teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, at the masterful prow. My role is to contribute an infrequent and I hope not too clumsy dip of a single very modest hand-carved wooden paddle. Or, at least, that is the ambition of my prayers in seeking to propel this blog: a media form not exactly designed (due to its episodic nature) for sustained enquiry as required by the sheer vast complexity of the topic yet offering other advantages, such as exceptional access and the ability to repeatedly dip so enabling  posts to prove themselves not as literary forms but as immersive and interlocking meditations.



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, 111.

[2] See Hopkins, Tsong-kha-pa’s Final Wisdom, 207.

[3] Tsongkhapa notes that “even though there is no mode of subsistence not posited by the force of appearing to an awareness, in this system [Svātantrika Mādhyamaka], it is not contradictory for there to be a mode of subsistence that is posited by the force of appearing to an awareness but is not merely nominally imputed, [whereas such in contradictory in the Consequence School]. Hence, the objects of negation in the two Middle Way Schools come to differ greatly with regard to the perspective of the awareness [in the face of which objects are posited]. Such exacting distinctions require careful contextualising of terms according to specific tenet usage. For example, according to the Prāsaṅgika (Consequentialists), as Tsongkhapa elaborates:

The apprehension of existence not posited merely through the force of nominal conventions…is the innate apprehension of true establishment, ultimate establishment, or establishment as [the object’s own] reality, as well as the innate apprehension of existing by way of [the object’s] own nature, existing by way of [the object’s] own character, and existing inherently. The conceived object apprehended by that [consciousness is the hypothetical measure of true [establishment].

The need to know the two modes of the ultimate is the qualification of the object of negation with [the term] “ultimately” is also the same here [in the Consequence School as in the Autonomy School…However, although the Middle way Autonomists assert that the three (true, ultimate, and real establishment) do not occur in objects of knowledge, they assert that the three (establishment by way of [the object’s] own nature, establishment by way of [the object’s] own character, and inherent establishment) exist in conventional terms. This is seen to be a very skillful means for leading those who are temporarily unable to easily realize the very subtle suchness towards realizing it.

See Hopkins. Tsong-kha-pa’s Final Wisdom, 207. For more on the  role of terminology see Style in Pages. 

[3] Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Three Principles, 111.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Geshe Sonam Rinchen The Three Principles, 112.

[6] Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Three Principles, 112-3.

[7] Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Three Principles, 113.

[8] Such research and experience is required if we are to avoid prematurely (and erroneously) concluding that this unfindability declares the extinction of things due to what we interpret as a free-floating, or absolute, rather than contingent nominalism:

When we speak of the nominally existent I that is a mere name, this does not mean that there is no meaning to I, or self, other than just a name. There is a meaning to which the name I refers. However, because the object I does not exist in a self-instituting way under its own power without depending on that name but exists depending very much on the name, on conceptual imputation, it is said that it is “name only”–merely nominally imputed, Thus, in the term “mere I,” “mere” indicates that when the I is sought under analysis, it cannot be found. Not only is the I–which is the basis into which these [karmic] predispositions are infused–merely nominally imputed, but also predispositions themselves as well as the actions that infuse the predispositions are nominally imputed, as is everything else. That phenomena are merely nominal does not mean that they do not exist at all; rather, it means that within existing, they do not exist under their own power, by way of their own entity, by way of their own character.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Meaning of Life, 68-9.

[9]   Ours is the tradition that follows Atiśa;
        It is the lineage of the profound view of [emptiness].
        Because phenomena lack true existence, diverse appearances arise;
       Since [true] referents never were, phenomena arise and pass away.

Some assert judgments to be as opposed as fire and water,
The reflection of red burning fire is there in the water;
If things are truly real it cannot arise in the water.
The moon, which is fifty yojanas wise,
Can be seen reflected in the water inside an offering bowl.

“I say that this [moon] comes about because in reality it is false.
Without the eyes touching the atoms, forms appear to the eyes;
I say this is so because in reality it is false.
Also, it is not that it does not exist, for diversities appear.
The contingent is not [truly] existent, or else it could not move.
Within the middle way all sorts of appearances arise.

From “The Jewel Garland of Dialogues, Chapter 9” in The Book of Kadam: The Core Texts, translated by Thubten Jinpa (Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2008), 157-8,

[10] Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Three Principles, 108.



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