Existing In Mere Name Relating To The Base


Lama Zopa, Tarzana, 1975






In this way [see last post Meditating On How The Object of Refutation Is There All Of The Time] we can understand that what is to be refuted covers the whole of phenomena.

This is so even when we think of enlightenment.

We have imputed enlightenment merely from the side of the mind.

But right at that time (of imputing) we are not aware that enlightenment is merely imputed by our thought. This is because what appears back does not appear as merely imputed by thought.

Instead, it appears back as not merely imputed by our own mind.

It appears to have never come from our own mind.

It appears as if it has nothing to do with our own mind.[1]

Likewise with hell.

Though hell is merely imputed by your own thought, it appears back to you as not merely mentally labeled.

This is the case with all phenomena.

Whatever we think, see, hear, smell, taste, touch and so forth, the false object is there covering that object.

Whatever we merely label appears back as not merely labeled.

In terms of our own view or perception, this appearance of phenomena as not merely labeled completely covers the whole of phenomena, including the I. This is because all phenomena appear back to this view as not merely labeled by the mind relating to the base.[2]

The I, for example, exists in dependence on being merely labeled on the base that is our body and mind.

By relating to that particular association of body and mind, we label “I.”

But although the I exists in mere name in relation to being labeled on that base, it appears as not merely labeled from the side of the mind.[3]

In the texts it refers to being merely imputed by mind and sound (i.e., uttered words), but for reasons of simplicity I shall say merely imputed from the side of the mind.[4] This base also exists in mere name.[5] It exists as merely imputed from the side of the mind relating to the gathering of the body and the mind, or the five aggregates.[6]

Likewise the mind also exists in mere name, having been merely imputed from the side of the mind in relation to the phenomenon whose nature is clear and that is formless, has no color or shape, and is able to comprehend objects.

This base, which is formless, clear, knowing and so forth, receives the label “mind.”

Likewise, depending on the continuity of mind over a number of years, the mind receives the label “today’s mind,” “yesterday’s mind,” “tomorrow’s mind.”

This life’s mind is merely labeled on the number of years of continuity of mind that have occurred so far in this life.

This year’s mind is merely imputed depending on the twelve-month continuity of that phenomenon.

It is the same with this month’s mind. It is labeled on twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, or whatever number of days of continuity of that phenomenon.

One day’s mind depends on twenty-four hours’ duration of that phenomenon, which is in the nature of clear knowing.

Likewise, one hour’s mind depends on sixty minutes, one minute on sixty seconds and one second on a number of micro-seconds.[7]

According to the different schools of Buddhist tenets, there are different views concerning whether or not particles exist partlessly or with parts.[8]

In the same way, there are different views concerning the parts of the continuum of consciousness. However, speaking again simply here, everything—starting from the I down to the seconds and split seconds of consciousness—exists as merely imputed by the mind.

The I, the general aggregates, then the body, the parts of the body, then down to the atoms and the particles of the atom, everything is merely imputed by depending on the base.

Everything exists as merely imputed by the mind.

Everything comes from the mind.

Everything exists in mere name.

Even though we put a hallucination or projection of inherent existence on all these things that are merely imputed by mind, in reality they have not even the slightest atom of inherent existence.

There is nothing that has even a slightest atom of inherent existence.[9]

So they are totally empty.

Totally empty.


The above  text is found without notes in Meditations





Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Yeshey Tupden explains how when approaching identification of the object of refutation it is helpful to appreciate how the “appearing object” (snang yul, pratibhāsavişaya) of the misconception of true existence is distinguished from the “referent object” (’dzin stangs gyi yul)] of the conception of true existence. This is because, while the appearing object exists in this case, the referent object of the conception of true existence doesn’t. See Klein, Path, 78.

This is why, he further describes:

To identify the object negated, it is not sufficient to identify merely the appearing object; it is necessary to identify, as Tsong-kha-pa does, the referent object of the conception of true existence. One must understand how this object is apprehended. Such identification is a skill that initially leads one to [understand] the coarse and then the subtle [forms of selflessness]….The referent objects [of these misconceptions] do not exist; they are imputed by the conception of true existence. The same mind both apprehends and imputes true existence. Such a consciousness has confidence in its object, just as persons whose eyes have been affected by a mantra are confident about the horse and elephant which the magician causes to appear to them. What is the measure of something truly existing? If the referent object of the conception of true existence existed, then [true existence, or a truly existent object] would exist. Otherwise it does not. Even though true existence does not exist, it is imputed there by the conception of true existence. That conception of true existence apprehends and adheres to it and thinks that it does exist….Thus, the measure of existence is something left over from [the denial of existence from] an object’s own side” (ibid., 137).

What is to be also understood from this presentation is that “Whereas the conception of true existence identifies an object existing from its own side, the actual mode of existence of things is the opposite of this: phenomena are merely imputed by thought” (ibid., 136). As Yeshey Thupden concludes:

[T]here is no need to negate the appearance of true existence. This exists and appears. It is something like a meaning generality or mental image. Can there not exist an image of the horns of a rabbit? The appearance of true existence exists, and, therefore, it appears to and is realized by Buddhas also. However, it is a mistaken appearance, not truly established, and [does not lead] Buddhas to conceive of true existence. Moreover, it appears to them because of its appearing to us, not from the Buddhas’ own side. The appearance of true existence and endless purity (dag pa rab ’byams) do not impair one another; both appear directly” (ibid., 98).

[2] Throughout his teachings Lama Zopa Rinpoche uses the following as equivalent terms: “base of designation”, “base of labeling,” “base of imputation” and sometimes just “base.” Geshe Rabten captures what constitutes a designative base (bdags gzhi):

For example, when we see our interpreter’s face, the concept of Georges arises in our minds. At this time Georges’ face is the base of imputation. This is equally true of anyone we see. When we see their body or even a part of it, this perception causes the arising of the concept of that person and is therefore the base of imputation at that time….This is also true, for example, of a tree. When we see the parts of a tree, the particular part of the tree we perceive acts as the base of imputation.

Treasury, 231–32.

The stress on “at this time” is crucial as the face of Georges is not naturally or invariably the base of designating Georges. This is because the base also depends for its existence on “name” and “concept.”  The concept here would belong to (in the sense of be generated by) someone who knew Georges and therefore had reason or cause to label ‘Georges’ in dependence upon seeing Georges’ face or even some other sufficiently distinctive part of his body. Admittedly, we might impute Georges based on the repute of others but that amounts to the same thing because, as there is nothing intrinsically existent in the base that prompts either the concept or label to arise and appear towards the potential cognizer, we are dependent on being alerted to the fact that that is Georges with the bald head and face with trendily-bearded chin, standing over there, or rather, leaning against the door frame. So we are being tutored, as it were, to identify that particular body as suitable to label “Georges.” As Kyabje Zopa has explained at length, we learn to identify the marks that make up the alphabet letters in exactly the same way. See posts Everything Comes From The Mind and What Appears Back?

That we must conceptually label in dependence on the base means the base can’t be meaningfully or even functionally established apart from the designating mind; standing alone as it were. Observes Jinpa:

[F]or Tsongkhapa, the person is designated in reliance upon his or her aggregates. Hence, the person is the designation and the aggregates are the designative basis. There is a mutual dependence between the two: the concept of one cannot be coherent without the other.

Self, Reality and Reason, 119–20.

This leads us back, yet again,  to the significance of Geshe Rabten’s qualifier “at this time.” There are indeed temporal situations in which Georges’ face does not and will not function as the base of designating Georges. An illustration: when it is seen by a total stranger.  such as when it is seen by a total stranger.  Consider, for  example, when a total  stranger sees it. Or perhaps a bee which then decides to land upon it. Though generally-speaking we can validly accept it is Georges’ face upon which the bee alights (presumably disappointed because it has not found a nectar-laden flower) the fact remains that Georges’ face is not serving as the base of imputation of Georges at all times or in all circumstances.  Does this therefore require us to conclude that the aggregates (or parts thereof) cannot therefore exist objectively or substantially as the base of designation “person”? For further discussion see Jinpa, ibid., 118–20.

[3] Geshe Rabten identifies three key characteristics generally required of a base of designation. Note that poor Georges has been replaced by Lobzang. I also quote the introductory sentences as they frame the three points:

For example, when someone on the outside of the window sees a person called “Lobzang” looking out of the window, then without any deliberation an imputing conceptual cognition will be produced in his consciousness which thinks, “Lobzang’s up there.” The way in which such an imputing conceptual cognition imputes Lobzang actually takes place in the act of apprehending, “that is Lobzang.” The basis or condition for imputation is the face of Lobzang that appears to the mind at that moment. And it seems that the way the face serves as the basis of imputation is that it acts as a special condition for the final object when the imputing conception is produced.

Similarly, when one thinks, “I am happy,” the basis of imputation, that serves to produce in one’s own consciousness the conceptual cognition that imputes I, seems to be the very feeling of pleasure one has in one’s mind at that moment. Likewise, when a conceptual cognition occurs that imputes any external phenomenon, it is due to the condition of a particular part of that phenomenon becoming an object of cognition that the imputing conceptual cognition itself is produced. Since that [conception] is the imputer, it would seem that those parts which at that moment became the objects of cognition are the basis of imputation.

If this is the case, then it seems that generally speaking the basis of imputation of an imputed phenomenon should be something that possesses the following three characteristics. (1) If an imputed phenomenon is analysed with a line of reasoning, that aims at disclosing its ultimate truth to determine whether or not it is established from the side of its basis of imputation, then the basis of imputation, that is the locus of analysis will serve as a condition for seeing the mode of existence or the suchness of the imputed phenomenon. (2) At those times when an imputed phenomenon is not being with a line of reasoning that aims at disclosing its ultimate truth, then the basis of imputation will serve as a condition for producing a conventional cognition that sees the [conventional] nature of the subject, the imputed phenomenon. (3) The functioning of the imputed phenomenon must be posited upon the very functioning of its basis of imputation.

See Rabten, Song of the Profound View (Boston: Wisdom, 1989), 77–78.

We must also consider that, according to the Prāsaṅgika, the base too is empty of existing from its own side as a base. As Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche says “This base also exists in mere name.” See also Tegchok, Insight, 102 and 115. If it was not empty  (i.e. didn’t exist in mere name) it would be permanent and thus incapable of giving rise to any appearance in dependence on conceptual imputation. In what sense then would it serve or work as a base of designation? Or, if it was somehow capable of giving rise to an appearance of a particular thing (irrespective of dependence on imputation) it would be giving rise to this appearance ceaselessly i.e. the appearances could never get to stop or be stopped. This is because the appearance would be springing up from the side of the base independently of imputing mind. However this clearly isn’t the case, a fact Geshe Rabten illustrates with a charmingly wistful story drawn from his retreat in the Dharamsala foothills of the Himalayas:

One occasion I noticed that there was a family of mice living in a crack of the wall of my hut. They made a lot of noise, that I found annoying to listen to. Sometimes all the baby mice would slowly come out of the hole in the wall one by one and would proceed to climb onto my back and shoulders. They would then walk up and down on my head and neck. This tickled somewhat and I found it rather uncomfortable. So I started to wear an old yellow hat on my head while I was meditating. Because these mice had no fear of human beings, even when they grew to full size they would lie down to sleep on the beams and rafters of my hut in places where people could see them.

At one time I had to go out somewhere and upon returning the mice were nowhere to be seen. I asked my disciple Jhampa Wangdu where the mice had gone. He replied that the mice had been lying down as usual when suddenly the striped cat came by and killed them all. Upon hearing this I felt very sad; but there was nothing I could do.

Song of the Profound View, 78.

Just as the base is thereby proven perishable and can disappear together with its function (or better still, functionality), so can the absence of mice be imputed conceptually to the very space where that base had formerly been. If this base of imputing the absence of mice (actually a non-mouse-affirming negative space) existed from its own side, then anyone coming into that hut in the years or even centuries ahead would look at those beams (and the related space above them) and immediately cognize  “no resting mice.” In all their absent vividness. Why? Because no resting mice would be intrinsic to the space that is there; it would constitute the objectively real and so always findable appearing aspect of that space. The appearance of an absence of mice would be self-powered; self-arising. Just imagine what that might do the equilibrium of our retreat one supposedly grounded upon solitude! 

[4] What does this simplification involve? When Lama Zopa says things are  “merely imputed from the side of the mind“ he is employing a shorthand notation to indicate how they exist merely “imputed by name and thought.”  “Name” indicates the term or language  unit which points to (or signifies) the referent object of that name and in this way “identifies something with specific qualities.” See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 311. Berzin given the traditional definition: “name” is “a combination of sounds that are assigned a meaning.” See Berzin Archives.  “Thought” on the other hand, refers to the conceptual or imputing mind that validly knows to what that “sound” refers. It necessarily does this in conventional contextual terms and thus can successfully dynamically apply it i.e. the pronounced word “table” only designates that thing called “table” for those who have learnt and understand English. In German  “tisch” refers happily to the same referent object yet this won’t be understood in the slightest by those ignorant of German. This issue was explored in terms of how a child learns to recognize the signs of the alphabet in the posts Everything Comes From The Mind and What Appears Back?

It would seem that by collapsing or contracting “name and conceptuality” together, Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche is bringing into sharpest focus how things don’t exist “without coming from our mind.”Or, in the words of Geshe Sopa, how: “Everything is merely imputed by name and thought, nothing exists from its own side in the slightest. Things are merely labeled from the side of the object perceiving them.” Sopa, ibid.

The Dalai Lama likewise describes the vital role of conceptual positing together with its implications for our understanding of how things conventionally exist:

One of the more important conditions in dependence upon which the ‘I’ exists is the conceptuality that posits the ‘I.’ Thus, it is said that the ‘I’ and other phenomena exist through the power of conceptuality. Dependent arising here comes to mean: posited in dependence upon a basis of designation; or upon a conceptual consciousness that designates the object; or arising in dependence upon a basis of designation, or upon a conceptual consciousness that designates it. Thus, in the term ‘dependent arising,’ dependent means depending or relying on some other factor. Once the object depends on something else, it is devoid of being under its own power of being independent.

 End of Suffering, 229.

Taking the example of anger, Ven Lobsang Gyatso likewise illustrates, “The only anger that can be found is one that exists merely in terms of a designation. One has to be satisfied with this mere nominal existence of anger simply because no other mode of existence can be identified.” As he elaborates, three inter-dependent things, or ingredients, are required for this imputational, nominating or designatory process to work: “There are certain characteristics or manifestations which act as the basis of the designation. There is the consciousness which does the designating. Then there is the designation or term applied by that consciousness to that basis, according to the conventions of terminology.” Harmony, 73–74.

So, while the term or designation for a particular boy might be “Tom” (according to the spoken “conventions of terminology”), it will only  reasonably be employed by a consciousness that is also a complex imputational agency necessarily invested with knowledge of whom Tom might be, whose particular son (there might be a number of Toms even in the same class or the same street) , how old, whether cantankerous, whether frightened of dogs, whether due for a birthday, etc. We must also take on board the fact that, as Quarcoo puts it, “Contrary to our common understanding of conceptions, the Tibetan equivalent [for conceptual thought] rtog pa is not restricted to conscious thought, but also refers to unconscious mental construction—any meaning the mind imputes on its object (and which a conventional consciousness would then take to be present in the object by its own nature).” See Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam-Rim, 293, footnote 351. Therefore, what is being imputed or “named” in any individual act of imputation must be considered to be more than the sheer sound of the word/name/label—in the current case, “Tom.” If we do not accept this broader notion of context we fall into what might be called an idealist linguistic-fallacy according to which only words or sheer language exist; then we are doomed to a universe composed entirely of text. Psychosis as semiosis and thus interminable.  

The limitations of such a stance are legion. Consider the example of  a prelingual human infant who imputes “my mother’s breast” conceptually but without employing recognizable “sounds” in the sense of “sensible” words understood consensually as signs conveying meaning (alerting to a precisely understood referent) within the public conventions of operationally-shared language i.e. the accepted shared  word/term for “mother’s breast.”  Conversely, a parrot with immaculate powers of mimicry might clearly and unambiguously emit the sound “Tom,” but without any conceptual understanding that its designatory object is this particular—or, indeed, any—boy (not allowing for tomboys, or why not?). But if we proceed with care, such cases reinforce, rather than mitigate the essential point: “If we try to find something deeper, something underneath the name that is the object, we will be unsuccessful. We can only keep coming back to the designation itself.” Gyatso, Harmony, 74. This is because the designation comes from the mind. So we are returned, full circle, to Kyabje Zopa’ Rinpoche’s key point.

For further discussion of how we can understand two designators—label and conceptualization together with their mutual interplay see Lamrimpa, Realizing Emptiness, 35–36

[5] While discussing whether or not time inherently exists, Geshe Sopa points out that to say that something exists in dependence upon being named is equivalent to saying that something exists because  dependently imputed and thus doesn’t inherently exist:

The Mādhyamikas do not say that the Realists are wrong about the existence of cause and effect. The Mādhyamikas do not deny causality, but they do reject the inherent existence of cause s and effects. Things such as time and so on are dependently imputed; they exist in dependence on being labeled or named. They dependently arise; they do not inherently exist. It is in this regard that they say the Realists [which for them includes the Vaibhāṣikas, Sautrāntikas, Yogācāras and various non-Buddhists] are incorrect.

See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 131.

Discussing why the “I” and all other phenomena (including bases) are described in Buddhism as “name-only” or “mere name” (ming tsam, nāmamātraka), the Dalai Lama explains:

The meaning of this is not that the ‘I’ and all other phenomena are just words, since the words for these phenomena do indeed refer to actual objects. Rather, these phenomena do not exist in and of themselves; the term name-only eliminates the possibility that they are established from the object’s own side. We need this reminder because the ‘I’ and other phenomena do not appear to be merely set up by name and thought. Quite the contrary.

How to See Yourself, 127–28. For commentary on how “could it not be feasible, that this world is [imputed by] conceptuality,” see Hopkins, Final Exposition, 39–40.

[6] In order to refute the realists (who say that a person refers to the collection of aggregates, or “bundle,” considered as a sum), Gungthang Dkon-mchog-bstan-pa’i sgron-me (1762–1823) writes: 

So, to the realists: Your positing that the mere assemblage of the bundles itself is the person has invalid implications; for the person must be posited on the basis of that mere assemblage of the bundles. The inclusion holds; for what has risen on the basis of Devadatta must be other than Devadatta, there being no way that something can arise on the basis of itself. And [your position] is invalid even if you say that, although the person is posited on the basis of the bundles, the sūtra has not stated that the person is posited on the basis of the mere assemblage of the bundles; for the sūtra has explicitly stated that the carriage [chariot] is posited on the basis of the mere assemblage of its parts, and both example and object must cohere. Moreover, it is implied that the mere assemblage of the parts of the carriage is the carriage, because the mere assemblage of the bundles is the person. If you hold that, then you explicitly contradict the sūtra by identifying act and agent.

See Matthew T. Kapstein, Reason’s Traces (Boston: Wisdom, 2001), 105.

When Kapstein says “identifying act and agent” he means identify them as one and the same. A close reading of this passage therefore cautions us not to equate the I with the aggregates, considered either collectively or singularly. This is because, as Gungthang says, what has “risen” on the basis of the aggregates must be “other” than the aggregates, otherwise we are forced to absurdly conflate act and agent (just as we are designation and base of designation). Because the person is posited “on the basis of the mere assemblage” of the aggregates, it follows that it can’t be already found there as the aggregates or in the aggregates or from the side of the aggregates etc., as Lama Zopa Rinpoche is explaining.

The analogy of the chariot is Candrakīrti’s. The Svātantrikas, on the other hand, hold that “the person is established among the features of the bundles that are the ground of its imputation” (ibid., 106). Again, Gungthang replies, “The inclusion holds; for what is posited among the features of the ground of imputation does not fall under the category of imputed principle” (ibid.). Thus we are returned to the significance of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s “exists as merely imputed from the side of the mind relating to the gathering of the body and the mind, or the five aggregates.” The contrasting Svātantrika position will be elaborated later in this blog.

[7] Similarly, writes the Dalai Lama:

Even though we can distinguish the rosary beads and the rosary string, our mind still gives rise to an appearance of it as though there were a substantial rosary existing without being totally dependent on them. If, however, we dismantle it, we cannot find such a rosary. The same is true of armies and forests. They are only what can be labeled on the basis of the gathering of a large number of constituent members. This is easy to understand. Like these examples, mind or consciousness is labeled on the basis of a continuum of moments. Because it is labeled on the basis of a collection of instances, it cannot be established as existing as something that does not depend on all its moments.

Gelug/ Kagyü Tradition, 328–29. See also ibid., 152–53.

The Dalai Lama also instructs how we are to consider even the briefest moments of a continuum—including that of the mind, which is a non-physical continuum of moments:

If even the briefest of moments did not have a beginning, middle, and end, it could not join with other brief moments to become a continuum; it would be equally close to an earlier moment and to a later moment, in which case there would be no continuum at all. As Nagarjuna says:

Just as a moment has an end, so it must have
A beginning and middle.
Also the beginning, middle, and end
Are to be analyzed like a moment.”

How to See Yourself, 57.

[8] For an introduction to some of these debates, see Daniel Cozort, Unique Tenets of the Middle Way Consequence School (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1998), 123–28.

Considering more generally the issue of how parts, in any case, can only be considered in relation to a “whole,” the Dalai Lama explains:

When the whole and parts of any particular object appear to our minds, isn’t it the case that the whole and the parts appear to have their own separate entities? They appear to conceptual thought in this manner, but when you investigate, it is clear that the whole and parts do not have separate entities. When they appear to our minds, the whole seems to have a separate entity from parts. If it were so, you should be able to find them under analysis, but when you analyze, you can’t find any such separate whole and parts. So there is a discrepancy between the way whole and part appear as separate entities and the way they actually exist. However, this doesn’t mean that there are no objects or no wholes, because if there were no wholes you couldn’t speak of anything as being a part. There are wholes, but their mode of existence is to be posited in dependence upon their parts, and there is no other way for them to exist. Since this is the case, it applies not only to changing or impermanent phenomena, but also to unchanging, permanent phenomena.

End of Suffering, 228.

The words “applies….also to unchanging, permanent phenomena” indicate how, according to the Mādhyamaka, “non-products” (including those with or without form) are also to be considered dependent arisings. See Rinchen, How Karma Works, 20.

[9] Atomic particle (rdul ’phran, paramānu). Buddhists (apart from those holding Mind-Only [Cittamātrin] tenets or their Mādhyamaka variants such as Yogācāra- Svātantrika) do generally accept that “[e]xternal things are made up of tiny atoms which accumulate to form larger physical substances.” For example, as Geshe Sopa explains:

[T]he two lower philosophical schools, the Vaibhāṣikas and the Sautrāntika, assert that physical things exist externally and are separate substances from the minds apprehending them. External things are made up of tiny partless atoms, which collect together to form bigger substances–such as the different elements of earth, water, fire and air. Gross objects are formed from these particles coming together in certain ways. When objects are large enough they can be perceived by the senses and recognized as specific things, such as mountains, elephants, people and houses.

See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 47.

However, that is not the main or immediate point under discussion. When Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche says “there is not even a slightest atom of inherent existence” the atom is being utilized as an illustrative measure via which to declare that nowhere is any inherently-existent existent to be found: not even one atoms’ worth; not even the example of one instance’s worth; not even the slightest trace’s worth. This is clear from the definition of a Proponent of the Middle Way School as given in the tenet literature:

The definition of a Proponent of the Middle Way School is a person propounding Buddhist tenets who asserts that there are no truly existent phenomena, not even particles.

See Geshe Sopa and Jeffrey Hopkins, Cutting Through Appearances, 279.

The insertion of “not even particles” into the definition is significant as the two lower schools, the Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika, hold that atoms are not only partless (i.e. have no sides or internal parts and hence are indivisible) but also exist intrinsically or inherently” (ibid. 179). The Vaibhāṣikas, for example, as microscopically-inclined empirists, classify directionally partless particles as “ultimate truths” along with “temporally  partless moments of consciousness and uncompounded space.” (ibid. 186). For the Sautrāntikas, directionally partless particles are also considered ultimate truths because they are phenomena  “able to bear reasoned analysis from the point of view of whether of whether [they] have own mode of subsistence without depending on imputation by terms of consciousness” (ibid, 224). For them, the following terms are mutually inclusive : “[functioning] thing, ultimate truth, specifically characterized phenomenon, and truly existent phenomenon.” (ibid). Speaking more generally of the nature of what the sense consciousness can perceive, Geshe Sopa says: 

The logicians and lower schools believe that direct perception is both nonconceptual and unmistaken and that the objects apprehended by the sense consciousnesses exist as they are perceived. They believe that forms and so are are inherently existent, in that they exist by way of their own characteristics. Also they believe the five sense consciousnesses perceive reality correctly and the objects they perceive exist truly, objectively, by way of their own intrinsic nature, and so are ultimate truths. (The Sautrāntikas do not claim that the ultimate truth is śūnyatā because they do not recognize it.) In short, according to the logicians and other Realists, the five sense consciousnesses are unmistaken consciousnesses that perceive their object’s intrinsic characteristics. 

See Sopa, Steps, Volume Five, 159-60. 

 The Cittamātrin [Mind Only School] do not accept that objects of the senses are composed of aggregations of substantial externally-existent particles, or atoms, because they do not accept externally existent objects. For them, and to take an example, an eye consciousness does not arise in dependence upon seeing a form  and thus serving as its objective condition. Rather, they hold that  both the form and the eye consciousness perceiving it arise simultaneously from the ripening of a single karmic predisposition “contained within the mind.” See Sopa and Hopkins, Cutting Through, 249-50. Thus, they propound  that “all phenomena are of the mere entity of the mind.” Ibid, 259).  Mind, for them, is an example of a dependent nature (out of the three natures: dependent, imputed or imaginary, and ultimate) and dependent natures truly existent. See Sopa, Steps, Five, 144; 589.  False  imputed phenomena-such as externally existent things-on the other hand, do not truly exist because they do not exist at all:  they are non-existent imaginaries. But the mind which is falsely imputing them and grasping them as existing objectively “out there” separate from the mind–does. Ibid, 589. 

Even in the case of the Mādhyamika school called Sautrāntika-Svātantrika  (who unlike their fellow Yogācāra-Svātantrikas  do accept external phenomena), though they accept that particles are not truly existent, they nonetheless accept that they necessarily exist “by way of their own character, because they assert that, regarding any phenomenon, if the imputed object is sought, it is findable.” As the 18th century tenet author Gon-chok-jik-may-wang-po is quick to point out:

The Consequence [Prāsaṅgika} School asserts just the opposite; they maintain that when an imputed object–any phenomenon–is sought, it cannot be found and thus does not exist by way of its own character.” (ibid., 285).

Tsongkhapa elaborately discusses the example of partless particles to pinpoint the limits of what can–and cannot–be validly established. I quote at length due to the importance of this passage:

Candrakirti’s Explanation of the “Middle Way” Commentary says: “Some say that the Mādhyamikas accept in conventional terms exactly what the Sautrāntikas advocate ultimately. You should understand that those who say this speak out of sheer ignorance of the reality explained in Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Treatise. Also there are those who think that Mādhyamikas accept in conventional terms what the Vaibhāṣikas accept ultimately. Those who think this understand nothing at all of the reality set forth in the Fundamental Treatise. For supramundane teachings cannot be likened to worldly teachings in this manner. The learned should know that our system is unique.

Thus he does not accept even conventionally the partless subjects and objects that are posited by the distinctive tenets of these schools. Candrakirt’s Commentary on the “Four Hundred” says:

It is not right for Buddhist schools to assert substantially existent minute particles as do the Vaiśeṣkas.

Thus he says that he does not assert partless particles.

Candrakirti is referring to things such as partless particles when he says that the Mādhyamikas do not assert in conventional terms what the two schools, Vaibhāṣikas and Sautrāntikas, assert ultimately. He does not mean that Mādhyamikas reject, even conventionally, everything those two assert as true, for while Vaibhāṣikas and Sautrāntikas assert that things like forms and sounds are true, Mādhyamikas do accept the mere existence of these conventionally.

In the Commentary on the “Four Hundred Stanzas” Candrakirti refutes the assertion that each minute particle within a collection of minute particles in a sensory faculty is a cause of a sensory consciousness. He argues that the sensory faculties are not established either as being just those minute particles or as being something other than them. Thus, the bases of the sensory consciousnesses are sensory faculties that are ascribed in dependence upon those minute particles. Likewise, in the case of objects, he says that the objects of sensory consciousnesses exist as constructs that are contingently constructed. He also asserts that the consciousness is designated as direct [in the sense of perceiving], but the object of consciousness is actually what is direct [that is, directly before consciousness]. Therefore, although the master Candrakirti and the master Bhāvaviveka are alike in accepting external objects, they seem to differ in how they posit the sensory faculties and their objects.”

See Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise, Volume 3, 171-2.

Here it is necessary to note that, for Svātantrikas, to say that something is not truly existent does not preclude something existing inherently This is because, unlike their fellow Madhyamikas, the Prāsaṅgikas, they do not hold true existence to be synonymous with inherent existence i.e. according to them they don’t refer to the same thing. Like the Prāsaṅgikas they do accept that things like forms and smell etc. do appear “to sensory consciousnesses as though they existed by way of their own intrinsic character” (Tsongkhapa, ibid) but, unlike the Prāsaṅgikas, they do accept, nonetheless, that they also exist that way conventionally (though not ultimately). Thus, for them, in terms of their distinct understanding/assertion, there is no difference (or disjunction) in appearing to exist inherently and existing inherently. In other words, they accept that when phenomena appear to exist inherently, by virtue of their own character, established from their own side etc. this mode of appearance actually accords with their conventional reality. So what might seem a subtle dispute regarding the meaning of words becomes profoundly existentially significant. In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

Some Madhyamaka masters, while agreeing that phenomena exist by virtue of being designated in accordance with the way they appear to the mind, nonetheless accept the notion of a self-defining character on the conventional level. They largely accept dependent designation, but if we analyze their standpoint carefully, we find that a residual assumption of something that can be perceived by the mind, some shred of objective existence. Madhyamaka philosophy masters who reject the notion of a self-defining characteristic even on the conventional level raise this objection: “If this were true, we could simply point to the thing itself and say, ‘this is it.’ This we cannot do. Things may appear to possess objective reality, but this is a mere projection; such a reality cannot be found by analysis and therefore has no basis, even conventionally.

See The Dalai Lama, The Middle Way, 102-3.

Returning to the immediate subject of atoms as a working unit of analytical investigation, Geshe Doga underlines the key point:

Only the Prasangika Middle Way School is able to establish, through logic and reasoning, that the agent, the action and activity lack inherent existence. There is not even an atom of inherent existence in all three. It is only the Prasangika Madhyamika School that presents the profound logic and reasoning of how the lack of inherent existence, rather than negating existence, actually establishes the existence of illusory truth – this is the unique presentation of the Prasangika Middle Way School. It is in this way that one gains an understanding of subtle illusory or conventional truth. As I have presented many times in previous teachings, this has the same meaning as the lines in the Heart Sutra which say:

Form is empty; emptiness is form.

It all comes down to the same point. When the understanding of interdependent origination dawns upon oneself, it enhances the understanding of emptiness and when the understanding of emptiness dawns upon oneself, it enhances the understanding of interdependent origination. At that point, one has come to the correct understanding of the Prasangika view.

Quoted from my post The Compatibility of Dependent Arising and EmptinessThe Compatibility of Dependent Arising and Emptiness

Likewise, in regards to the following verses of Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland:

102. Hence, the Victors have said
that all things are selfless;
it has been demonstrated by you
that the six constituents are selfless.

103. In this way, neither self nor non-self
are ultimately perceived just as they are.
Therefore, the Great Sage refuted
both views of self and non-self.”

Geshe Jampa Tegchok comments:

In fact, the Buddha’s intention was that there is no self. He rejected both an inherently existent person and the inherent existence of the selflessness of that person. Neither self nor non-self are ultimately perceived just as they are indicates that when we analyze both the person and its selflessness, we don’t find even at atom of inherent existence. For this reason the Great Sage refuted both views of an inherently existent self and non-self. In other words, the person is selfless and that selflessness itself is also empty, or selfless.

See Khensur Jampa Tegchok, Practical Ethics and Profound Emptiness, 139. [Bold mine].

In this way it becomes obvious that finding no atom of true existence is another way of saying that no phenomena can withstand an ultimate analysis. Again, in the words of Geshe Tegchog and again in relation to a verse from Nāgārjuna:

When one splits apart the plantain tree along with all its parts,
[one finds] no [core] at all,
so too, when one “splits apart” the person with its six constituents,
[one finds] no [essence] at all. (verse 101)

When the bark of most trees is removed, we find hardwood underneath. But this is not the case with a plantain tree. If we search for a core of hardwood by peeling off its bark layers, nothing is found. Similarly, when we use ultimate analysis and search the basis of designation to find a person, we don’t find one. Whether we search in the aggregates, the constituents, the elements, or the elemental derivatives, we cannot identify a person. Although the person depends on these, it is not any of them individually. Nor is it the collection of them as a whole. There person is also not found separate from these components. The same holds true for all phenomena: they cannot be found in their basis of designation as either inherently one or inherently separate from their parts. Furthermore, they are not the collection of parts”(ibid, 137-8).

This penetrating and in its own way devastating logical method called “ultimate analysis” (don dam dpyod pa’i rigs pa) will be extensively in forthcoming posts. José Ignacio Cabezón, writing post-Derrida, even goes as far to refer to it as a deconstructive measure. See Cabezón. Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism, Chapter Five. I feel there are significance senses in which this is true.



Fantastical Victorian-style gothic grotto. Malvern, Melbourne, Australia.
Is this the meaning of “illusion-like”? Photograph, Ross Moore 2017

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