A Hand Moving In Empty Space




A Mādhyamika reflection:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says he often reflects on Nāgārjuna’s statement in Precious Garland (verse 80):

A person is not earth, not water,
Not fire, not wind, not space,
Not consciousness, and not all of them.
What person is there other than these?

The sequence of negatives (not earth; not water…not all of them, not other etc.) describes a powerful analytical meditative procedure according to which one systematically,  relentlessly zeroes down to an acute point: realisation of  the actual mode of existence of the  person as selfless. A probing application of eliminative logic works by  leaving no viable options or possibilities for establishing inherent existence (as findable, real) unscathed and still able to stand. As His Holiness explains:

First he considers whether the physical elements of the body–earth (hard things), water (fluids), fire (heat), wind (air), and space (the empty spaces such as the gullet) – could be the self. Next he examines consciousness. Then he considers whether the collection of all of these could be the self. Finally, he rhetorically asks whether the self could be other than these. In none of these ways can the self be found.

However, His Holiness immediately cautions that this  non-findability of the self under analysis does not mean that the self (here referring to person or mere-I) does not exist:

Then Nagarjuna does not immediately draw the conclusion that the self is not real. Rather, right after that stanza he says that the self is not nonexistent but is a dependent arising which is set up dependent upon those six constituents names above. Then, based on this fact of dependence, he draws the conclusion that the self is not real [Verse 81] :

 Due to being [set up in dependence upon]
a composite of six constituents,
A person is not real.[1]

The conclusion: a person is not real (inherently existent); they are  like a magician’s  illusion. Why?  Because the person is merely “set up” by imputation in dependence upon the suitable base of designating person–the composite of physical and mental constituents.  Cast back to  Lama Zopa  Rinpoche’s pungent analogy of the shadow of a flower mistaken for a spider;  it appears real but is void  of [existing as] being real; though appearing to solidly exist (covering the base of designation where it appears to be)  it is completely  empty of being a solidly independently existent spider in its own right, one sitting objectively, in-and-of itself, able to set itself up from its own side, through its own power, findable, right there. 

Just as the real spider (by means of shining the torch to reveal not a spider but the shadow of a flower) is discovered to be totally hallucinatory, the projection of  an ignorant  mind, so here the real I or real person is realised to be totally non-existent, totally  empty of being a real person but this time by virtue of applying a surgically-sharp laser analysis that leaves no viable alternative or option for the existence of such an inherently-existent person intact, meaning  ontologically feasible.


To bring the analysis home, while prone and vulnerable on my hospital bed in the giddy aftermath  of post-donor cell transfusion, I had cause to speculate as not just my identity was at stake: my donor could not have essentially or innately been  her marrow (assuming my donor was female; I couldn’t sex a stem cell which is significant in itself – upon what do we impute a sex?)  just as she wasn’t her blood, bones, phlegm, muscles, heart, liver, brain, glands, urine, bladder, brain, skin, hair –all the physical bodily elements  whether considered either singularly or collectively.


Nor was she findable  separately or inherently apart from them. If she had, she could be found wherever and whenever her body or its constituents were absent. On holidays. Or why not in multiple locations simultaneously?   Nor was she innately her mind for the mind is immaterial and can’t be hooked and taped to a machine in order to siphon off  and package in the form of organic stem cells destined  for physical transplant. And, of course, nor could it be squeezed like a bag to extrude stem cells. Yet, in dependence on her body and mind, she had been able to establish, legitimately impute a self, a self that was no other than a selfless and thus a most subtle dependent arising. One whom I might very happily cast (label) as a  selfless stem cell donor whom I wished to celebrate by carrying  aloft on waves of my deepest gratitude and respect.

Likewise, the body to which the marrow had formerly  belonged (i.e. belonging was also dependent on a designatory setting up of what belonged and to whom [or what] it belonged) could also be established in dependence on the collection of body parts pertaining to her and not my continuum. This required particularity of respective continua was clear sign and proof, of course, that the body, her body, was not real as a body from its own side. Only upon a suitably because appropriately contingent basis could the donor come to talk possessively and intimately of “my marrow” (involving also her appropriate imputation)  just as she might “my arm” or my leg.” i.e. it was a “mine” because organically connected to a “me” and thus suitable to be labeled and apprehended in immediate personal  property terms. Another person is unable to validly do this ( in relation to her parts)  as they pertain, by definition, to a separate and distinct set of physical and mental aggregates in dependence on which they validly label themselves a distinct (in the sense of their own) person. In the intriguing example of still-joined  “Siamese” twins we might argue  they share their arms and legs and marrow: hence ” our arms,” ” our legs”.  But because they don’t have minds in common ( i.e. one mind with two facets like a coin)  we still have a base for legitimately  imputing not one but two persons, both of whom can think “my mind” according to their personally-held and respectively-maintained  property notions.

So now the rub, the measure of the convalescent quandary that so profoundly entertained me in the midst of my chemo-delirium: if her “my marrow” was intrinsically and independently her possession, then it would be impossible to gift it, hand it over to another party, this person in distant Australia, namely, one called Ross! Or, if it was found to exist intrinsically, inherently, without dependency, that is, independently as it appeared to innate self-grasping ignorance to be, it would still be inviolably hers, even when it had been transfused, or in spite of being transfused, drip by drip, into me. The absurd consequence: try as I might, try as the doctors might, I could never own it – make it, even nominally, provisionally, mine.[2] This would be true even of the progeny of those stem cells which were now to be incubated and propagated within my bodily continuum rather than that of my donor who I knew was simultaneously  resident (and thus now causally unrelated) far away in England.  Even considered in strictly biological terms they could never form constitutional part of my body. Rather,  I would be sheltering not a collection of primordial stem cells that had merely jumped ship, via brilliantly advanced sci-fi  medical intervention, but a uniquely  monstrous self-sufficient incubus. Though I might  repeatedly and increasingly desperately re-label them “my stem cells” it would be always in pitiful vain. The  “my” of my stem cells would never and could never pertain to the “my” that was related to me! There would be eternal slippage. Spooky. Indeed.

A further unsettling consequence occurs: we must acknowledge that the donor inherited the stem cells due to the necessary causal event of the mitochondrial interweaving and fusing of her parents’ sperm and egg (whether in a test tube or not doesn’t matter).  Thus, because her stem cells  arose due to their own substantial causes and conditions extending  via two pathways, beyond and prior to the moment of this connubial zyygotic mating (we are talking in both cytoplasmic  and chronological terms) grasping at them–even from her perspective–as inherently or really “me” or really “mine”  once again is fatally challenged. It makes no sense. Whatsoever.[3] They were not hers when she received them.

So neither of us owned them really then? Despite all the fuss and effort to trade them sideways? Not to mention all the expense? And the survival angst?

Magician wand

The answer to the above questions can be wondrously found in the Sūtra titled The Demonstration of the Inconceivable State of Buddha:

Furthermore, Subhūti, the five aggregates belong to causes and conditions. If they belong to causes and conditions, they do not belong to oneself or to others. If they do not belong to oneself or others, they have no owner. If they have no owner, there is no one who grasps them. If there is no grasping, there is no contention, and noncontentious is the practice of religious devotees. Just as a hand moving in empty space touches no object and meets no obstacle, so the Bodhisattvas who practice the equality of emptiness transcend the mundane world.[4]

Note: In terms of the valid base of designating a person, we can talk either of the six constituents, as in the Nāgārjuna stanza above, or of the five aggregates. The body is an example of the first: the form aggregate. Also note that it is  possible to adjust the Sūtra passage to read: ” Furthermore, Subhūti, the body belongs to causes and conditions. If it belongs to causes and conditions, it does not belong to oneself or to others. If it does not belong to oneself or others, it has no owner. If it has no owner…. etc.

Āryadeva applies the same logic of dependent arising  to self and  other.  He writes in Four Hundred Stanzas (verse 228):

Your self is not my self and thus there is
No such self, since it is not ascertained.
Does the conception not arise
In relation to impermanent things?

Gyel-tsap comments:

Since that which is your self is not my own self, it follows that the object of your conception of “I” is not self existing by way of its own entity, because it is not ascertained as the object of my conception of “I” or my attachment to the self. Therefore doesn’t the thought “I” arise in relation to impermanent things called form and so forth? The self is only imputed.[5]

This analysis can be seamlessly extended to those persons called donors and those called recipients. To begin to talk of such, we must impute, via whatever determination is deemed to best socially and medically work, the cardinal moment when those stem cells can (nominally) come or said to be regarded as “mine”.  Otherwise, if  never allowed to arrive at the threshold of “mine” let alone territorially or literally cross-over, how could they ever to be said to be a precious gift from you? And thus justify your status as a donor? Not to mention my mutually interdependent status as recipient for,  if still yours – and remember we are qualifying this as yours by way of intrinsic nature, or from their own objective side – they could never be received by me in any shape or form or time. No transaction, no exchange, no gifting could take place. Thus the very categories of donor and host, benefactor and recipient, would petrify as operational failures.  Unable to function their binary structure would cataclysmically collapse. Cataclysmic for what would happen to the prospect of my recovery from a terminal disease if the very complex,  dangerous and expensive transplant exercise was existentially forfeited as a potential let alone an accomplished  fact?


In his description of how “you practice generosity with the six perfections present, Tsongkhapa succinctly explains how you combine the Perfection of Generosity with the Perfection of Wisdom (the sixth Perfection) “when you know that the giver, gift, and recipient are like a magician’s illusion.”[6]  Without a giver there is no given. Without a given there is no giver. Without a giving there is neither. If we have an act of giving but nothing to give nor no-one to receive what does giving mean? Can it even function? Therefore these three circles, because mutually implicative, inter-reliant, lean on each other as it were, as does an invalid on his stick. Because empty of objective existence they can nominally  stand but only when yoked together.


[1] Dalai Lama, How to Practise the Way to a Meaningful Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins (London: Rider, 2002, 166-7. Kay-drub (mKhas grub dGe legs dpal bang po) details the same important point (though his illustrations differ) in relation to the meaning  of engaging in correct reasoning that analyses the ultimate (don dam dpyod pa la thugs pa) :

When one engages in correct reasoning such as [the logic that establishes things as being] void of being the same as or different [from its parts], or such as the search for the chariot in terms of the seven aspects, if one finds that the object does not exist in any of these [ways], that is, it is not the same or different [from its parts] and so forth, this is what we mean by “not finding [the object] such as the pot and so one when one searches for it by means of reasoning that analyses the ultimate.” It does not mean that the pot and so on has been found to be nonexistent by a valid cognition that analyses the ultimate. Not finding the pot, for example, when one searches for it by means of valid cognitions that analyses the ultimate indicates that the pot does not exist ultimately. How could it possible be indicative of the fact that the pot does not [in general] exist?

He then pinpoints very precisely how what this ultimate analysis finds is not the absence of the pot (in our case illustrated not by pot but by the person) but the finding that the referent object labeled by the term pot does not exist in any of the exhaustively searched ways:

When one searches for [the pot] in this manner, to find that it does not exist in terms of any  [of the possibilities] is said to be “finding the reality (gnas lugs) of the pot” or “finding its essence (rang bzhin)” or “finding the ultimate (don dam). One should also know that the fact that the referent object labeled by the term pot does not exist in any [of these different ways] when it is searched for by logical reasoning which analyses the ultimate is finding that the pot does not ultimately exist, and the pot’s not existing ultimately is said to be “the ultimate (don dam pa) [nature] of the pot,” “essence of the pot,” and “the reality of the pot.”

See Cabezón, José Ignacio, A Dose of Emptiness: An Annotated Translation of the sTong thun chen mo of mKas grub dGe legs dpal bzang. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992, 101. Note that ‘ultimate’ and ‘essence’ are not employed here as a synonyms of “inherent existence.” The context, because it is regarding the final nature or reality of things (which does exist, albeit not inherently)  is specific: it doesn’t, in other words, involve analysing whether conventionalities, such as persons and pots, exist as conventionalities. So the target is distinct. As Kay-drub stresses, “Therefore, there is  a very great difference between logical reasoning not finding something and it finding it to be nonexistent” ibid.

[2] Geshe Doga notes that a sense of “mine” itself arises in dependence on a causal or evolutionary chain. In turn, its generation brings significant negative behavioral consequences:

When one has a strong sense of ‘me”, then that is followed by a strong attitude of ‘mine’…one can become very narrow-minded when one considers, ‘this is just mine and no one is allowed to go there’. This kind of attitude arises when there is a very strong clinging to one’s own position from a strong self-cherishing mind. When one has such an obsessive focus on one’s own interest one is not appreciated to others. It is hard to relate to such people.

See Geshe Doga, Commentary to Middling Stage of the Path to Enlightenment, translated by Ven Michael Lobsang Yeshe, Tara Institute Study Group, 7 October 2015, 3.
See http://www.tarainstitute.org.au/transcripts

[3] Śāntideva writes:

Although the basis is quite impersonal,
Through (constant) familiarity
I have come to regard
The drops of sperm and blood of others as “I”.

See Śāntideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, verse 111, 197. This point is to be further pursued in a later post titled “This Side That Side”. Another implicative complication: if the body was inherently mine there could be no transmigration as one would be unable to abandon one’s gross physical body at death nor acquire a new one as the physical basis of the next life. Or, one would always be attached to the exact same body from lifetime to lifetime. In this case, enlightenment and the attainment of a Buddha’s Holy Body would be impossible. Nor could one be reborn in different realms e.g. if now human, an animal realm next. Nor could karma influence what kind of body we acquire nor modulate its characteristics. Superb speckled tail feathers versus a peacock’s iridescent fan, etc. If we think about it, we identify ourselves as human, only because we have a body suitable to be designated a human body. Surely its the same for horses and animals. Just what does a crow see when it spies itself in a mirror?

[4] Sūtra 35, Taishō 310. See C. C. Chang (editor), A Treasury of Mahāyāna Sūtras. New York: The Pennsylvania State University in conjunction with The Institute for the Advanced Studies of World Religions, 1983, 32.

[5] Āryadeva and Gyel-tsap. Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas: Gyel-tsap on Āryadeva’s Four Hundred. Commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen. Translated and edited by Ruth Sonam. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1994, 216.

[6] Tsong-kha-pa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo): Volume Two, The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Editor-in-Chief, Joshua W. C. Cutler; editor, Guy Newland. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2004, 121.


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