Dreaming The Prime Minister


Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche teaching while viewing construction of the Great Enlightenment Stupa. Atisha Centre, Bendigo. 2011 Retreat. Photograph Ross Moore


We can ask whether there is a difference between dreaming about becoming prime minister and being prime minister? And, if there is no difference, then who or what is the prime minister? How can we tell the dream from the reality? Wouldn’t they be the same? In the same way, how could you tell the difference between the tired and hungry “I” who is reading this text and the tired and hungry person in a dream? And if we become the prime minister in our dream, does this make us prime minister? We can answer all of the above by observing that in order to be the prime minister we have to have a valid base: the aggregates that have received the vote. But the I in the dream that thinks “I am prime minister” doesn’t have this base. Therefore this prime minister doesn’t exist.[1] I hope the actual prime minister doesn’t hear this!

The I that does exist (the one doing this course, who is listening and tired or getting bored, or who has done this before in many past lives!) also exists in mere name, merely imputed by mind. Why? Because there is a valid base—the aggregates—doing the course, listening, getting tired and hungry and so forth. This “I” exists because there is a valid base and also because it does not receive harm from being the object of the absolute (ultimate) wisdom realizing the ultimate nature: emptiness.[2] The point here is that the inherently existent I—the one appearing as not merely labeled, appearing independently, and appearing as the real one and not dependent on the base—does receive harm from such a wisdom mind, whereas the merely labeled I does not. What this helps us also understand is that the merely labeled I (which does conventionally exist) doesn’t receive harm from the valid conventional cognizer either.[3]

Have we really understood these points? Not only have you dreamt you are prime minister but in your dream you believed you really were the prime minister. However, upon awakening, even your nondreaming mind realizes that you are not the prime minister at all. No matter how intensely you might have believed you were in the dream, upon awaking, this belief is dispelled. Without depending on the perceptions of others, even your own valid conventional cognizer is able to ascertain your non-ministerial status.[4] Additionally, because you don’t have the prime minister’s aggregates (though you might claim to be the prime minister of your own aggregates!), if you were to claim that you were the prime minister when you went to work the next morning, you would become the source of office ridicule.[5] They would think you were crazy, had taken drugs, or something. What this means is that this claim to be prime minister is damaged by the valid minds of others as well.[6] The reason why the I that exists in mere name, merely imputed by the mind does not similarly receive harm from our own and other people’s valid conventional minds is because there is a valid base in dependence on which the I can be conventionally validly labeled.

Now you can see how extremely subtle is the phenomenon that is “I.” It is due to this subtlety that many famous and great meditators in the past fell into either of the two extremes, that of nihilism, holding that things don’t exist at all, and that of eternalism, holding that things exist from their own side.[7]

Though there are many different explanations of how things do exist and what is the ultimate nature, the clearest explanation of the right view is by Lama Tsongkhapa. He put much effort into giving especially elaborate teachings on the extremely subtle point of dependent arising in order to clarify the Prāsaṅgika School’s view of emptiness. [8] He did this in order to so extensively benefit the Buddha’s teachings and sentient beings.

It is important to talk more about dependent arising and how things such as the I, the aggregates, subject, object and action exist. Listen carefully. By emphasizing existence we remove the danger of ourselves falling into nihilism, in which we think that nothing exists.[9] Discomfort while talking about emptiness is also avoided. Nihilism is not just a philosophy in which you happen to believe. In Āryadeva’s teaching it mentions that holding the view that nothing exists creates very heavy negative karma, heavier than that of killing one hundred million people. Nihilism is a heresy and the greatest obstacle to achieving liberation.

However, when we hear about emptiness we normally think: “That’s OK, no problem.” But this carefree attitude is because what we normally think about is not emptiness; it is something else, something other than emptiness.



Hashang 8th-9th century, Tibet. Parcel-gilt bronze with pigments and coral, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (UK). The Chinese Master Hashang believed that, because everyone is already in essence a Buddha,  in order to be liberated, all one needed to do was relax and empty one’s mind entirely of thoughts and then dwell in that state.  In what sense could this be the Middle Way and how might such a meditational stance establish the two forms of valid mind: one engaged with the ultimate and one engaged with the conventional that have been preoccupied this post?



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography


[1] This point concerning successful demarcation of conventional reality from illusion can be illustrated with the famous analogy of the snake. Ven Lobsang Gyatso says:

In the case of a snake, someone at a certain time in the past first gave the name snake to a certain object, the animal with the characteristics unique to a snake. To the basis they applied the designation ‘snake’. just so today, when enough of those characteristics, the sinuous body, the absence of legs, the patterned skin, the fangs and so on, appear to mind, we may validly impute snake to that set of characteristics. In our example of a length of rope lying on the ground in the twilight, on the basis of an appearance to mind of a sinuous, legless animal with poisonous fangs lurking in the grass, the person walking in the dusk apprehends snake and recoils in horror. But if he takes a closer look at the object in the grass, although he will see a sinuous legless form, he will see nothing he could call a body or a possessor of fangs, nothing he could call a head or talk, nothing he could call an animal even. So a closer examination of the basis of imputation, the rope, reveals that it is not something to which one can ascribe the uncommon characteristics of a snake and therefore it is unsuitable to apprehend it as a snake.

Ven Lobsang Gyatso, The Harmony, 60. It is simply in this nominal sense that we might now conclude that this rope, though appearing as a snake, is not an actual snake but rather, just a rope. Indeed, upon the cusp of that recognition of a rope, the appearance of the snake that was merely superimposed by thought, disappears. We can’t similarly say that the snake disappears because the snake was never there.

The above scenario is now related to the respective cognitions involved:

There are two significant differences between the mind which apprehends an actual snake and one that apprehends a rope as a snake. Firstly, we cannot ascribe to the rope the qualities of having a body or fangs or a forked tongue of the qualities of being able to crawl on its belly along the ground or to bite other creatures. therefore it is not a fit basis for the designation snake. Secondly, if the person who originally thought the rope was a snake takes a second, closer, look then he will be able to see that the rope is not a snake but a rope. This latter perception, of a rope lying in the grass, is a correct or valid perception and it establishes that the former perception, of the rope as a snake, was mistaken. It is capable of overturning the former perception; in other words the former perception can be disproven. Therefore a rope is not a basis for the designation, a snake. Ibid, 60-1.

Having arrived successfully at this conclusion (one most essential if we don’t want to get bitten) it is vital not to fall or slide into a new form of essentialism whereby we now falsely conclude that whereas we commonsensically accept (of course because we are not silly) that a rope is not a valid basis of designating ‘snake’, we do, nonetheless,  find the real basis of designation “snake” to be a valid basis from its own side. In other words, it is an inherently existent base of snake. To conclude otherwise is to preclude the very possibility of a snake being there. But according to the Prāsaṅgikas this isn’t the case either. Just as the merely imputed snake is unfindable in the rope neither is the merely imputed snake findable in the “valid” imputation of a snake. If it were, the snake would be established as inherently existent and thus would be (found) established from the side of the basis independently of being merely imputed by thought. Ven Lobsang Gyatso says:

If we are asked whether the object designed, the snake resides within the basis of designation, the characteristics or parts, we have to answer that indeed it does not. For instance, the skin of the snake is not the snake; the long thin body is not the snake; nor are the fangs, nor are the other features either individually or collectively. The fact is that a conceptual mind apprehends a snake by imputing it on to a number of characteristics which appear to that mind, none of which are themselves a snake. People who say that a snake exists by way of its own entity or from its own side are oblige to come up with something among the parts, features or characteristics of a snake that is essentially the snake. Unless they are able to put forward something substantial like that to point at as the actual object or at least a substantial basis on which to hang their imputation, they have to acknowledge that the snake is merely imputed. Ibid., 61.

By way of tenet contrast, as Geshe Lobsang Gyatso notes, ‘the lower schools for their part, contend that a piece of rope is not a snake simply because it is not a snake from its own side, and that a real snake is a snake because it is a snake from its own side. This explanation fails to acknowledge the exclusive role of imputation in conceiving and identifying objects.” Ibid, 60. It is for this reason that they can be described as essentialists or substantialists or even realists.

So let’s leave this merely imputed but nonetheless functionally efficacious serpent dangling and writhing, except to note that more on this snake can be found in the following post: 

Pinpointing Root Ignorance

[2] Lama Zopa Rinpoche appears to be particularly referring here to the third of Lama Tsongkhapa’s three criteria for establishment of the valid existence of a conventionally designated phenomena:

How does one determine whether something exists conventionally? We hold that something exists conventionally (1) if it is known to a conventional consciousness; (2) if no other conventional valid cognition contradicts its being as it is thus know; and (3) if reason that accurately analyzes reality–that is, analyzes whether something intrinsically exists–does not contradict it. We hold that what fails to meet those criteria does not exist.

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume Three, 178. Jinpa paraphrases:

  • Since Tsongkhapa does not dispute the conventions of the world on questions of what exists and what does not, it appears, at least on the surface, that the criterion of conventional existence is simply whether or not the said convention accords with the perspectives of the world. 
  • In order for something to be accepted as conventionally real, not only must the convention be ‘known’ to the world, it must also not be contradicted by another nominally [or conventional] valid cognition. 
  • Such a convention must also not be invalidated (gnod pa) by any analysis pertaining to the ultimate ontological status of things. 

See Thubten Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 155-6. 

Regarding the meaning of this third criterion, predicated as it is on the meaning of (an) ultimate analysis, Geshe Sopa says:

The third criterion for something to be conventionally existent is that the thing is not proved false by correct ultimate analysis that investigates whether it exists inherently. This means that any conventionally existent thing must be established by conventional valid knowledge and it must not be negated by ultimate valid knowledge. In addition, it must definitely not be proved by ultimate valid knowledge, because then it would be truly or inherently existent. Ultimate analysis is an examination of whether or not something exists by its own nature. If a thing were sought and found by correct ultimate analysis, then it would be inherently existent. If a conventional thing were established by ultimate analysis, it would exist by its own nature, inherently–which would contradict its being a conventional thing. So conventional things can neither by established by ultimate analysis nor negated by ultimate analysis.

Sopa, Steps, Volume Five 198.

To take a few steps back, what an ultimate analysis ascertains is the mere lack of inherent existence. It does this by engaging in “a logical search for the essential identity of an object. Take the example of the essential identity of a person called Devadatta:

If we analytically search for a particular person, such as Devadatta, we look for him among his five aggregates, because if he is to found, he will be found within his aggregates of body and mind. But Devadatta is not his face, nor his body, nor any thought, feeling, or anything else among his aggregates, When we look for the real inherent nature of Devadatta we cannot find anything. Wherever we look, outside or inside, up or down, we do not find Devadatta, Because there is nothing to be found after investigating in this way, we determine that Devadatta cannot withstand ultimate analysis. A thing that is unable to withstand ultimate logical analysis simply disappears upon examination We keep searching, but we cannot catch hold of anything that is the things’s essential nature. Everything that we examine loses its apparent identity, vanishing into its parts and the  parts of its parts.” Ibid, 77. 

Though an ultimate analysis not does find anything (including conventionalities) it is most definitely not the case that it smashes, disintegrates and destroys Devadatta even though, in the face of this analysis he has vanished, along with his disappearing parts etc. Given this, ultimate analysis  is not positioned to either establish the existence of any conventional phenomena nor  contradict their existence. It can, however, contradict and thereby refute the (only ever apparent) “existence” of inherent existence because when searched for, such an “entity” or “nature” cannot be found i.e.. if it did exist it would and must be findable by such an ultimate analysis.. The implication: “Devadatta is just nominally existent, imputed on his various aggregates. He exists, but he does not exist inherently.” Ibid., 78.

On the other hand, only conventional existents can appear to a conventional cognizer, not their final mode of existence: their emptiness, although we can conventionally know/understand that things are empty based on the reknown of an ultimate analysis successfully performed at another time and occasion. However, the emptiness known at the time of a conventional cognition is only an approximate or imputed emptiness because, as the object of a conceptual mind,  it is mixed with a generic image of what emptiness might be and thus appears dualistically whereas the “real ultimate truth is without any duality, and it appears nondualistically to the mind perceiving it.” See Sopa, ibid., 253. 

It is in this way that we can appreciate how the functions of a conventional consciousness and a consciousness analyzing the ultimate are unable to swap over or exchange places for: each is dedicated to its own pursuits and achieves its own results. Therefore, as Geshe Tashi Tsering says:

“Refuted” by rational analysis and “not found” by rational analysis are different. The conventional existence of forms and so on is not found by such an analysis simply because it is not looked for. The intrinsic existence is not only not found by such an analysis, but also refuted by it, because that is exactly what it is looking for. Only a conventional consciousness can establish the production or cessation of an object. That is its job. Only an ultimate analysis can establish the lack of intrinsic reality of that production or cessation. That is its job.

See Tashi Tsering, Emptiness: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, 84. Newland likewise notes, “Tsongkhapa” for his part in his Great Lam Rim, “indicates that the conventional consciousness to which he is referring is a consciousness which, while it may analyze its object, never questions or scrutinizes its object’s mode of existence.” Moreover, “he stresses that this conventional consciousness exists among all beings, and not only among those who are innocent of philosophy.” See Newland, The Two Truths, 84. A “probing awareness analyzing the ultimate” on the other hand “can negate the existence of an inherently existent person, it cannot negate the existence of a conventionally existent person because the latter is outside of its purview.” See Tegchok, Practial Ethics and Profound Emptiness, 112. Unlike a conventional consciousness which is common to all sentient beings, an example of  pristine awareness is not to be found in the  untrained ordinary minds of humans, let alone animals and other creatures. It must be carefully and intensively developed. Hence the purpose of this blog. 

Considered in terms of their respective purviews in this manner, we can understand that a conventional phenomena is not invalidated by a probing reasoning consciousness correctly analyzing the ultimate because what  that cognizer finally ascertains is only the final mode of existence of a conventionality i.e. its emptiness (which is an ultimate, not a conventional truth). A conventional cogniser likewise, for its part, cannot non-dualistically and directly ascertain the existence of an emptiness, or more pertinently, its own emptiness, because if it did, emptiness, by virtue of being the object of an ordinary mundane conventional cognizer would  be easily and normally  perceived. Why? Because emptiness would thereby fall into the domain or scope of what is directly and commonly knowable by an ordinary mind (including those of worms and pigeons) in which case, things, including emptinesses, would be (absurdly) established or rather, and altogether more problematically, erroneously re-confirmed as existing from their own side, just as they appear to that conventional consciousness

If a conventional cognizer can cognize ultimate reality, then what is the need of ultimate cognizers? Or, for that matter, two truths? What then is the purpose of the path to liberation and enlightenment.?

But a conventional consciousness, or rather, a valid conventional consciousness is equiped to  distinguish between what conventional exists and what doesn’t. Tsongkhapa says: 

Other conventional valid cognitions do not contradict that which exists conventionally. For example, a consciousness that does not analyze how things actually exist may think that a rope is a snake or that a mirage is water. However, conventional valid cognition does contradict the objects apprehended by such consciousnesses, so those objects do not exist even conventionally.

A reasoning consciousness that accurately analyzes whether something intrinsically exists does not contradict that which exists conventionally. What is posited conventionally must be established by conventional valid cognition. In addition, reasoning consciousnesses that accurately analyze whether it intrinsically exists definitely does not contradict it in any way. Whatever such reasoning establishes as existing must exist essentially, so it is contradictory for such to be a conventional object.

Because of this, it is wrong to confuse (1) not being contradicted by a reasoning consciousness and (2) being established by a reasoning consciousness. Such confusion is the basis for the misconception that the following two propositions stand equally, either both true or both false:

1. Pleasure and pain arise conventionally from virtue and nonvirtue.
2. Pleasure and pain arise from a divine creator and a primal essence.

This misconception is incorrect. The two propositions are equivalent to the extent that a line of reasoning that accurately analyzes whether things intrinsically exist will establish neither, but the two are not alike in all respects–one is contradicted by reason and the other is not.

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume Three, Ibid.179-80. 

The gist of this passage (which increases in difficulty towards the end) is that  “a partless object and subject, a self, a primal essence, a divine creator” etc. are the intellectually-fabricated products of tenet propositions uniquely asserted by “Buddhist and non-Buddhist essentialists” who believe, based on their own variety of rational analyses, that such phenomena are findable after “rational analysis of whether such things essentially exist.” But when the “impeccable reasoning” of the Mādhyamaka is applied they will indeed “stand refuted–because if they did exist, such reasoning would have to find them.” Ibid., 180. Thus, such intrinsically existent “imaginary constructs”   can be contradicted by reason analyzing the ultimate whereas validly conventionally-existent phenomena can’t. For further discussion see Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 199.  

In further pursuing this topic, we must be precisely aware of what being “found” or “not found” by an ultimate cognizer means. Geshe Sopa, following Tsongkhapa, stresses that:

The ultimate analysis of Buddhist and non-Buddhist essentialists”  “must be very different from the ultimate analysis of the Mādhyamikas, because when subjected to Madhyamaka ultimate analysis, those objects are not found. Because they cannot bear examination by faultless reasoning, their existence is negated–according to the Realists’ own criteria. Therefore we must conclude that the ultimate analysis of the lower Buddhist schools and the non-Buddhists contains some error.” Sopa, Ibid.

Jinpa  indicates that Tsongkhapa’s purpose in stating this third criterion is precisely to eliminate adherence or allegiance to fabricated views holding partlessless particles, a self, primal essence, a divine creator, etc. to be not just real, but intrinsically real:

Tsongkhapa wishes to demonstrate that metaphysical postulates such as ātman, ālaya, eternal dharmas, and so on cannot be accepted as conventionally existent, for these metaphysical categories are incapable of withstanding ultimate analysis. Yet, if they possessed real existence, they would certainly be findable when searched for through critical analysis.

Jinpa, No-Self, Truth, and the Middle Way, 157.

Again, only by distinguishing what essentialists consider “ultimate analysis” from what the highest Buddhist Schools consider “ultimate analysis” are we positioned to understand how non-existent “metaphysical postulates” (ibid) such as inherently-existent primal matter can be repudiated by an ultimate cognizer whereas conventionally-existent phenomena can’t. In relation to these conventional phenomena, Tsongkhapa says:

We [the Madhyamikas]  posit forms, sounds, and such only as they are known to conventional consciousness that are not impaired by internal or external causes of error. We do not assert them as part of a system in which an analysis of whether they are mere conventions or instead have objective existence will find that they are essentially or intrinsically existent. Thus, rational analysis of whether they intrinsically exist is irrelevant because we do not assert that these objects can withstand rational analysis. For example, if someone claims, “This is a sheep,” it is inappropriate to analyze this claim by asking, “Is it a horse or is it an elephant?

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume Three, 180. For Geshe Sopa’s discussion of the same  passage, see Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 199. In other words, there is no point or purpose in applying an ultimate analysis to conventionalities whatsoever. Jinpa draws out the essence of Tsongkhapa’s passage just quoted: 

Here, it is vital to recall Tsongkhapa’s logical distinction between that which is ‘not found’ when sought through critical reasoning and that which is ‘found not to exist.’ The fact that persons are unfindable when sought through ultimate analysis, does not entail that they are negated by such critical reasoning. Persons, being conventional realities, lie beyond the scope of ultimate analysis to negate or affirm. Therefore, the inability to withstand ultimate analysis is not the same as being negated by such an analysis.” ibid, 157.

The danger of confusing or perhaps worse, ignoring this distinction between the significance of “not finding” through reasoning and being “found not to exist” is that we incline towards the somewhat monstrous (because inclining to nihilism) hypothetical objection that arises if we mistake ultimate analysis to mean: “Since no phenomena can withstand ultimate analysis, persons too can be seen as repudiated by analyses pertaining to the ultimate nature.” Ibid. If this repudiation of (the very possibility of the existence of) conventionalities was the case then there would be no means of establishing the conventional existence of the snake, indeed, no means of establishing any existence at all. This is how we would fall into nihilism (thought there are other ways, alas). Speaking now  in entirely pragmatic and unphilosophical terms, nor could we hope to distinguish an imaginary or hallucinated snake from a real one. So again, we are returned, full circle (or did we ever leave it?)  to the important main topic: how the three criteria enable us to  measure the limit of conventional existence. As Khensur Jampa Tegchok says:

First, it isn’t commonly accepted in the world for a rope to be a snake. Second, people with unimpaired senses in a brightly lit room do not see a snake there; they see a rope. Third, a probing awareness cannot establish a snake there.

Khensur Jampa Tegchok, Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness, 112. 

Put bluntly, if we fail to precisely make this crucial distinction between the inability to withstand ultimate analysis and being negated by it we will be seduced by extremes and thus lose our footing on the Middle Way. But upon making ,it we can understand how the existence of a conventional thing won’t be “harmed” as Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche says, or, in the words of Tsongkhapa) “invalidated by reasoning that thoroughly probes into the way things [really] are–i.e. enquires as to whether or not something exists by means of  its intrinsic nature.” Tsongkhapa quoted in Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 157.

[3] Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche is referring here to the second of Lama Tsongkhapa’s three criteria for establishment of the valid existence of a conventionally designated phenomena:

In order for something to be accepted as conventionally real, not only must the convention be ‘known’ to the world, it must also not be contradicted by another nominally [or conventional] valid cognition. Jinpa, Ibid., 156.

This was addressed in the first note during the discussion of how a subsequent valid cognition–even of the same person–can refute an earlier one as illustrated by erroneously holding a rope as a real snake ready to jump up from the grass to bite and kill us.

Least we now fall into a new subjective trap of assuming that there is an inherently real valid consciousness and an inherently real invalid consciousness that establish their respective objects (existent or non-existent) from their own sides,  we are to understand that:

“Valid” and “wrong” consciousnesses are determined by another valid consciousness that analyses their validity. That’s the only difference . From the object’s side, whether it is a coiled rope or the reptile, there is nothing existing as a snake objectively or ontologically. It is posited entirely by the conventional consciousness.

See Geshe Tashi Tsering, Emptiness, 108. Likewise, so are valid and invalid consciousnesses. posited entirely by conventional consciousness; they are not valid or invalid from their own sides. In this way we avoid hypersticizing thought, an extreme to which idealists such as Mind Only (Cittamātrins) are particularly inclined,  Thubten Jinpa illustrates this very point with our favourite versatile snake:

A subsequent realization of the coiled rope as not a snake when seen in brighter light automatically repudiates the validity of the precious perception, In contrast, the perception of snake based on a real snake is not open to such invalidation. Although both these perceptions are equal in having intentional objects that are in agreement with known perspectives of the world, one of them lacks grounding in valid experience, while the other does not.

Jinpa, No-self, Truth and the Middle Way, 156. Likewise, Geshe Tashi Tsering:

On a conventional level, of course, there is a huge difference, and to misperceive a rope as a snake is simply wrong. It can be proved to be wrong by another conventional consciousness analyzing the situation. So in this case, for instance, when someone else comes along who knows the area and has a flashlight, it can be easily ascertained that the snake is in fact a rope. Say, however, it really is a snake, then the separate valid consciousness will see it as such, and the first mind perceiving the snake as a snake will be proved correct, or more precisely “valid.”

Geshe Tashi Tsering, Emptiness, 107. There is a vital caveat to be introduced here:

Except for direct perceptions of emptiness, all direct perceptions of unenlightened beings are mistaken, as they perceive the object to have inherent existence, but some are valid–on a conventional level they apprehend the object as it is (a snake as a snake) –and some are wrong. Ibid.

In other words, within the general purview of seeing things as inherently existent, one can, nonetheless, still validly cognize conventionalities inasmuch as they are conventionalities i.e. present that face.

To pursue Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche’s own example, the “I” validly imputed to the aggregates (suitable to perform the function of a person) will not be repudiated by another or subsequent valid cognition as there was no fault in the first imputation, at least in regard to the existence of the conventional person i.e. even if that conventionally existent person is apprehended mistakingly as existing from their own side they are nonetheless correctly ascertained as a person. What is to be understood here is that a conventional mind that validly apprehends a person is mistaken in regards to its appearing object–an inherently existent person–but is unmistaken in regards to its held or main object–a person. See Sopa, ibid, 201.

The essential point: “Ordinary people see and hold things to be inherently existent and, even though this is wrong from the ultimate point of view , it is correct from the perspective of worldly knowledge” Ibid. 200. Further exploration of this point leads us into the etymology, definition and illustrations of conventional truth or truth for an obscurer of suchness. This will be the topic of other posts.

[4] This requirement involving popular renown—or the “perceptions of others,” as Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche describes it, especially pertains to the first of Tsongkhapa’s three criteria, namely “simply whether or not the said convention accords with the perspectives of the world.” See the discussion in note one.

Upon waking, the person who dreamt she was prime minister recognizes the falsity of this ‘reality’ by mere dint of the obvious observation that she is able to recall that she was dreaming. As Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche is explaining, because the person who dreamt is the same person who awoke,  she is in a position to refute her own prior dream claim because the illusory and thus unreliable status of dreams is popularly and sensibly well-understood by people when awake. In other words, upon awakening she recognizes that her (dreamt) status as prime-minister is sheer fantasy with no bearing in terms of conventional perspectives of the world together with its socio-political knowledge of elected political office bearers in general and particular appointments of prime ministers specifically.

The dream mind that held her as prime minister is thereby declared not only unpopular (because uncommon and non-consensual i.e. unique to her solitary self) but also invalid in terms of being legitimately qualified to declare ‘real’ living and breathing prime ministers. It is commonly understood, in other words, that a dream prime minister is not the full goods and certainly not to be taken seriously. 

We must appreciate here that “to be known by conventional consciousness” does not preclude that some kind of mundane or conventional analysis or inquiry as to who is or is not properly qualified to be a prime-minister, for example, may be involved in this assessment. The point remains however, that this inquiry is not qualified as an ultimate analysis because it is not intent on determining the ontological status of its object. In this regard it does not depart or seek to take flight from the orbit or terrain of what is conventionally known. Even animals, say a crow, can investigate whether they would rather eat rancid versus freshly-killed meat. In the case of other birds and based on our extensive observation, we know some do prefer rotting flesh hence we give them the popular name “carrion-eaters” and collectively and thus meaningfully refer to them as such. One does not have to engage in advanced philosophical enquiry in order to effectively do this. See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 196. In the same way we know something as mundane and ordinary as pots to conventionally exist, even though they take various forms–perhaps some even outlandish–in different cultures. As Geshe Sopa says, “Conventional valid awareness simply engages its object as it appears without further examination,” Ibid., 196. It’s as simple as that because there is no impulsion to move beyond appearances.

However, there is still room for caution here, lest we gloss the subtlety of what it means to be established as conventionally existent through popular reknown. Geshe Sopa explains:

According to the Mādhyamaka system, to be conventionally existent means to be established according to common worldly knowledge. However, Mādhyamikas do not accept everything that is accepted by the world. When we say that something is “commonly known,” it does not mean known in the sense of being proved by valid knowledge; it simply means that it is commonly accepted. What is commonly known may also be known by conventional valid knowledge, such as understanding snow to be white, But common knowledge may include a “knowing” that is not valid; indeed, some things “known” in the world for centuries can later be negated by valid reasoning and found not to exist at all.

Geshe Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 199. Geshe Sopa proceeds to give two especially poignant examples because directly pertinent to our topic of realizing emptiness:

For example, ignorance always imputes an inherent nature onto things, yet things do not exist in the way that ignorance holds them to exist. Also, the egotistical view that grasps an inherently existent self (me) and an inherent belonging to the self (mine) has operated since time without beginning, yet what is held in that way is negated by logical reasoning and does not exist at all, This does not mean that the holder–the incorrect consciousness–does not exist. It is what that incorrect consciousness holds that does not exist–the self of persons (in the case of the egotistical view) and the self of phenomena (in the case of ignorance in a broader sense). Both of these are totally nonexistent; they do not exist either ultimately or conventionally. Ibid, 100.

Put another way, if you accept that what exists conventionally is what is “commonly known to worldly people” then you must also accept that “inherently existent things exist conventionally.” ibid. Why? Because “ordinary people see and hold things to be inherently existent and, even though this is wrong from the ultimate point of view, it is correct from the perspective of worldly knowledge.” Ibid. In other words, because something is conventionally held to exist does not mean that it exists in reality; yet, by the exact same nominal token, we cannot talk (at least meaningfully or sensibly) of the existence of anything that does not conventionally exist. This is because all existents exist as objects of valid knowledge merely in terms of conventional imputation. If they existed, not just validly, but at all beyond this scope, three truths, not two truths –ultimate and conventional (which necessarily exist in a dichotomous relationship) would be required with hitherto unsuspected, perhaps even calamitous results.

Returning to the discussion of the limits involved in whether or not we can afford to equate what is commonly known with what is proven as validly real, Geshe Sopa (as does Tsongkhapa) also gives another important example:

We think that the mountain we see today is the same as the one we saw yesterday. We do not see the momentary changes; out of longstanding habit we invariably identify today’s mountain as yesterday’s mountain. In reality, a thing that exists in the first moment does not exist in the second moment. It is already gone. In short, although ordinary things may be commonly known, this does not mean that they are established or proved to exist.

Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 200. Tsongkhapa points out that reason can be employed to arrive at the correct view:

Since the objects conceived by conceptual consciousness that apprehend the aggregates as permanent and so forth do not exist conventionally, reason can refute them. However, the referent objects of the conceptions of the aggregates as impermanent, etc. do exist conventionally, hence reason cannot refute them.

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume Three, 181. We might add others, such that the suffering of change is happiness, or that afflicted desire is a source of contentment.

What is to be gleaned here is that:

[T]he truth of forms, sounds, and such is posited in the perspective of ignorance, but ignorance does not posit things such as forms and sounds. For example, from the perspective of a wrong consciousness that apprehends a rope as a snake, the rope is a snake, but this wrong consciousness does not posit the rope. Since the minds that posit things like form and sound are the six unimpaired consciousnesses associated with the eye , etc., the objects they establish do exist conventionally, and thus reason does not refute them. However, even conventionally they do not exist as ignorance apprehends them. This is because ignorance superimposes an essential or intrinsic nature on things, and this intrinsic nature does not exist even conventionally. Ibid, 182. 

It is in this way, says Tsongkhapa, that we can understand Candrakīrti’s statement that “forms, sounds, and so forth are posited as conventional truths (kun rdzob bden pasaṃvŗti-sayta) through the force of ignorance.” In other words, as Tsongkhapa glosses, “since all thought must be considered a conception of true existence, forms, sounds, and so forth are truths for the ignorance that superimposes intrinsic existence on them.” Ibid. Only in this restricted and provisional sense are they to be nominated as ‘truths’. On the other hand, bodhisattvas on the eight ground who have eliminated afflicted ignorance as well as the two types of arhats (Hearers and Solitary Realizers) “see these appearances as fabrications and not as true because they do not have an exaggerating conception of true existence.” ibid. For them, they are “mere conventionalities” ibid. Thus even real snakes found in the grass are like illusions. But this doesn’t mean they are illusory! If they were there would be no need to watch one’s step.

[5] The argument regarding appropriate base is transferable to any phenomenon. Writes Pabongka Rinpoche,:

[W]hen you pursue the reasoning that the basis of imputation and the phenomenon imputed are separate, you will find that the pot, which instinctively is being held to be true, cannot be established as being the same as the basis of the imputation, which is itself supposed to be established as true. Further, once you apply a process of elimination to the basis of the imputation of the pot, what remains does not seem to be a pot that you can point to. Instead, the valid conventional pot appears to you in dependence upon its valid basis of imputation—the set of the mouth, the belly, the base, and so on. You must assume that the pot exists merely as a conventional truth, because the pot cannot be established as something that is itself established as true and separate from the basis of imputation. Liberation, 643.

Thus we are redelivered to the not just politically significant issue of whether or not we are qualified possessors of the prime minister’s aggregates.

Khensur Jampa Tegchok gives an account of not the prime minister but the president to the exact same effect:

In the same way, not everyone can be called “president of the country.” That wouldn’t work, because the person we label “president” has to be able to function as a president. He or she has to be properly elected and must be able to do the job of president. in other words, there needs to be a valid mind imputing “president” and the basis on which “president” is imputed has to be a valid basis. In this case, a valid basis would be someone who has been elected president and sworn into office, somehow who has been invested with the power of that office and can do the work of the president. When he visits other countries, he is greeted as the head of the state; he is recognized as having been voted into office by the citizens of that country. he signs bills, bringing them into law. If somebody else were to sign the bills, it wouldn’t work. imagine what would happen if someone thought that just by labeling himself “president” he had the power to negotiate trade agreements for the country!

See Tegchok, Insight, 108).

[6] See Tegchok, Insight, 107–8, and Gyatso, Harmony, 59–61 for further examples. “Valid minds” and “valid conventional minds” in this context again refer to conventional valid cognizers (tha snyad pa’i tshad ma). In his commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path, Pabongka Rinpoche presents a parallel and necessarily complex scene—in this case involving a chant master:

First…there must be a person who is worthy of being the chanting master. Then there must be someone like the abbot of the monastery who says, ‘He is now the chanting master.’ Until the abbot does so, until the abbot applies the name and concept to this person, he cannot be the chanting master—even though he may have all the qualities you need to be named ‘chanting master.’ If this were not the case, and if the person were somehow the chanting master from the beginning, all on his own without anyone putting the name or idea on him, then he would have to have been the chanting master all along—from the time he lay in his mother’s womb. And when he was born, the moment he came out of her womb, people then should have said, ‘Here comes the chanting master!’

Tsongkapa, Principal Teachings, 120.

[7] An example of how such extremes are generated is given by Ven Lobsang Gyatso:

When the lower school debaters hear the Consequentialists say that all phenomena are merely imputations, they assume that this signifies that all phenomena are merely imaginary. They say that to call something a mere imputation denies the existence of any object at all except for some conjured up figment of the imagination.” He then articulates the Prāsaṅgikas’ (Consequentialistis”) reply:

The Consequentialistis are only denying that objects exist by way of their own characteristics which of course to them is very different from denying objects altogether. So Consequentialistis say in reply that when we impute an object it is certainly necessary to have a valid basis for such an imputation. A rope for instance is not a valid basis on which to impute a snake.

Ven Lobsang Gyatso, Harmony, 60.

A valid conventional mind is also required and if this is not fully understood, extreme views evolve. For example, the lower schools employ themselves the illustration of a dream in a bid to refute the the Prāsaṅgika position:

Compare dream experiences with experiences of the waking state: since both sets of experiences are merely projected by the mind and have no true existence, no distinction can be drawn between them in terms of whether the experiences are actual or not. If, for example, a fully ordained monk (who has strict vows against killing) dreamed that he deliberately murdered someone and rejoiced in having done so, would not he have broken his vows? In his dream he only killed a person who was merely imputed, but so what? The Consequentialistis would have you believe that even a person whom you might kill during the waking state has no mode of existence other than as a mere imputation by conception.” Ibid, 59.

The point on which to end here is to emphasize the importance of understanding Tsongkhapa’s three criteria required for establishing the limit of what conventionally exists and what does not. It is not the case that we need to fulfil only one or another: all three have to be fulfilled as they are so very intricately operationally bound together. Pull one apart or away, and the ability to establish a conventionally existent thing totally collapses. Right then and there.

In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

There are three criteria for establishing what actually exists on the conventional level. It must be well-known to a mind that cognizes conventional phenomena, not be undermined by another mind that validly cognizes conventional phenomena, and not be undermines by a mind of awareness that scrutinizes and analyzes the deepest level. In other words, there are no phenomena that cannot be designated or categorized as what can be mentally labeled or imputed. But not everything that can be labeled necessarily corresponds to what exists. This is where we must take care. Because the mind can give rise to an appearance of something totally insane, it is not sufficient for something to be well-known to a conceptual mind in order for it to qualify as a conventional phenomenon. The actual thing that is well known must not be undermined by another mind that validly cognizes conventional phenomena. Because such a mind also cognizes appearances of phenomena as existing truly and inherently, however, the second criteria is also insufficient. Therefore what is well-known to the mind that validly cognizes conventional phenomena must not be undermined by a mind of awareness that scrutinizes the ultimate, deepest way in which things exist. These criteria define the borderline between what exists and what does not exist conventionally. What exists conventionally is like an illusion, not the same as illusion.

Gelug/Kargu Mahamudra, 326.

Therefore the prime-minister who is validly elected by popular consensus and performs her tasks to a tee is like an illusion (in that she appears as an inherently existent prime minister rather than one merely nominated by thought and label) but the prime minister who performs her activities in a dream is an illusion. Once exposed to the commonsensical glare of the  light of day she, together with her antics, no matter how excellently executed, will hoodwink nobody.

If we can distinguish between those merely imputed things that do conventionally exist from those merely imputed things that don’t, we are able to step for the very first time onto the exquisitely fine line that shimmers between the two extremes: eternalism and nihilism. Put another way, and altogether too crudely we can navigate past the fork in the road.


[8] Speaking of those who reject the meaning of dependent arising as emptiness and emptiness as dependent arising, and who categorically and adamantly can’t accept that things exist merely in dependence on imputation by thought and name (for them this entails having no more reality than an illusion or a dream), Geshe Sopa says:

Tsongkhapa scolds those mistaken scholars.He says that even if they cannot establish the faultless system of the great Mādhyamikas themselves, at least they should not denigrate it by claiming it does not exist. Simply accepting the reasoning that everything dependently arises completely cuts through the net of wrong views that things ultimately exist or do not exist at all. Those who have wisdom are free from all contradiction when establishing the Madhyamaka system. It is ridiculous for anyone to think that they can avoid contradictions by claiming that they do not have any assertions at all —even denying what they see —because they think that if they do not affirm anything then their opponents will not be able to disprove them. That is just crazy talk!

See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 338.

[9] The Dalai Lama says: “There are others who, while ostensibly admiring the teachings on emptiness and Madhyamaka philosophy, still mistakenly understand the emptiness teachings in a nihilistic fashion. Such people may have a tendency to say things like, ‘Oh, nothing really matters—everything is empty after all.’ When you say things like that, you risk denigrating the validity of the conventional world and the law of cause and effect.” Middle Way, 94. See also, How to Practice 143–44 and Middle Way, 104. Also Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 29, and Cabezón, Dose, 109.





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