This Side That Side



15th century, Tibet, Tsongkhapa, gilt copper alloy or gilt copper, at the San Diego Museum of Art (USA).


In his Middle Length Lam-Rim, Tsongkhapa, poses, in the context of the practice of exchanging self and others, the following qualm:

“Since someone else’s body is not my own body, how would it be appropriate to generate the same attitude of ‘mine’ toward it?”

On our behalf he answers:”This body was also created from semen and blood of our parents, and even though it was created from parts of other’s bodies, we hold it to be “I” by the power of previous familiarization: likewise if we familiarize ourselves with cherishing other’s bodies as if they were our own, this mind will arise.”[1]

As scriptural reference,  Śāntideva is quoted:

Therefore, with regard to drops
Of someone else’s blood and semen,
You apprehend yourself; like that
Get used to it regarding others.[2]

The point is  subtle and requires that we recognize (and this was noted in an earlier post: A Hand Moving In Empty Space ) that “our” current body is not really ours in any inherent sense. Why? Because, at the time of the parents’ egg and sperm, they belonged not to us but to them. Not only that: only later did we come to possess them via an act of appropriation or conceptual establishment requiring our labeling “ours” in dependence on the body parts that had subsequently systematically arisen from the germinal zygote and to which our consciousness was now associated (because it wasn’t before).


On the other hand, if our body was found as inherently existent, it could not broach–in the sense of be open to–such inter-dependent relations involving (in the case of an impermanent composite phenomena such as corporeal flesh) causes and conditions and also, parts (the assembled flesh bits-and-pieces as labelling base) and imputation by thought.[3] Instead, standing in–and–of itself and thus totally, immaculately apart from all else, it would either always be ours, or never be ours.  This is because its identity would be concrete and absolute, impervious to repositioning or change.  It could never be traded, received nor abandoned. Nor could it circulate and participate in a  wider economy of changing variables and values. Nor could its internal identity shift, evolve or devolve as, according to ignorance superimposing intrinsic nature, it is to be found ontologically established already in its true and final (thus only) nature.

This also means it would  always exist  exactly as it appears: there could be no disjunction between appearance and reality and thus nothing for profound wisdom realising emptiness to penetrate.

Returning to our non-inherently existent body (which does exist for as long as the conditions for prolonging and supporting its fragile temporal continuum are met) through familiarization we reach, in the sense of adopt, a point where this organic basis, though formerly derived from our parents appears (legitimately in ordinary worldly conventional terms) in dependence on being labeled by our validly-designating mind as “I” or “me” or, in other circumstances demanding a personal possessive case, “mine.” In this case “mine ” can be seen as a conceived modality of the self, a property notion imputing and gasping  “mine,” rather than a reference to some externally-possessed  material  object, such as a car. It is the psychic work involved in making  into “mine” with the emphasis on subject rather than object.

When physically sick we declare: “I am unwell.” When touched inappropriately, we angrily retort: “Don’t touch me”! When asked for our severed hand as retribution  for stealing we clutch it possessively with the other and, as the shining blade is raised, cry: “No, that’s mine.”

1200px-Un_pauvre_averti_Gontran_-_Frédégonde_ordonne_la_mutilation_d'Olericus copy

That such a process of familiarization is required to produce these scenes evidences that our physical body is not intrinsically “I” or “me” or “mine” for,  if it was, it would appear as such spontaneously, at the very first moment, from its own side, and without any further effort required at all, and most certainly not from our side.

If we delve a little further many logical dilemmas arise. For example, if we assert that what is merely labeled our body was naturally or essentially our body already, anyhow, and thus self-established, self-instituted from the very start, we would have to accept we have not one, but two bodies: one derived/assumed via the conduit of the mother’s lineage and one via the father’s. This  is an awkward conclusion to reach, to say the least. And do we then have one mind, or two, to symmetrically accompany them? Or does one body miss out on having a mind altogether as is sometimes the case in undescended clonal twins? Then are we, strictly speaking, only half a person?

And, still (hypothetically) arguing from the premise that our body and mind are inherently existent, if we hold that our body is always associated with our mind (and thus they share a common condition) then why conduct elaborate funerals with flowers as melancholic gifts for the dear departed? Just what has departed? Who or what could? “Oh, the mind but not the body has departed” you retort. “This is because the circulation has stopped and the brain is dead.” [Notice the implicit endorsement of scientific materialism]. But how could this be? If two things are united inherently they cannot be separated/split, either now or subsequently . Nor can inherently existent things change status from animation or sentience one minute to entropy, or death the next.[4] However, if things–namely compounded phenomena–do not exist inherently they might, but that is precisely the point.

Perhaps we expect to escape the logical complications arising from the assertion that our body comes from two independent parental streams by proposing that what we hold as ourselves are not two combined me’s (who would be so silly as to propose this) but two component parts, inherited from the parents certainly, but now evolved into a perfectly intertwined biologically integrated entity: nothing less than  a seamlessly singular newly minted “me.” Some kind of fresh unique production. The veritable stuff of selfies. But again, we would have to account for how  such an integration was, or could, ever be accomplished if each half was inherently different to start with, just as were (at least according to those asserting inherent existence) our two parents from whom the egg and sperm sprung. Indeed, how is it possible that the sperm and egg  themselves meet and merge?  It is just not possible for two inherently distinct things to combine/unite into an inherently distinct “one” and thus become an inherently distinct third entity.

Put another way, just as it is not possible for two inherently and simultaneously existent things–say an inherently existent body and an inherently existent mind–to be (included in) the same continuum as there could be no shared substratum nor is it possible that they serve as support for an inherently existent (rather than a”merely labeled)  person cast as actor/agent possessing body and mind. Again, this is because what is inherently distinct cannot operate as a substratum or foundation for the self, or person or indeed, anything other phenomena.

Placing all the above objections aside, we may wish to argue, without the support of any reasoning or philosophy, that we simply feel–instinctively–that the cohesive “whole” that is our experience of our current self naturally exceeds the parts from which we derived. But such a “naturally” self-endorsed self, if inherently existent–meaning operating entirely through its own power without reliance on another–would have to exist over and above i.e. apart and beyond the parts from which it came and hence could not partake of the natures or experiences of those parts in any shape of form.[5]

For example: I could prick your body with a pin, or a torturer’s metal goad, with divine impunity. You would neither know nor complain. I could insult you by shouting in your ear till the cows came home but you would never hear. Thus you could never learn. You could never remember. You could never forget. I could try to upset your mind but nothing would ever reach. You would be eternally adrift, unperturbed, in some hermetically, nay, hermeneutically-sealed La La Land where not even your physical senses could operate, nor any accompanying  mental activity.

In short, no circumstance affecting body or mind could ever impinge. The dis-embodied and mentally-divorced “I” would be perfectly solipsistically enclosed upon itself. A flawless egg devoid of content and reflecting back (like a mirror) the entirety of the world.This is a metaphysical stance.  Idealism pushed to its brink.


15th Century, Tibet, 4-Armed Avalokiteshvara, Buddha of Compassion Gilt copper alloy or gilt copper, at San Diego Museum of Art (USA).

These hypothetical speculations aside, discombobulating and tantalizing though they may be, and returning to the opening quote, Tsongkhapa has a very particular  purpose in establishing how the “I” comes to be apprehended as such in dependence on something which is not actually the I, namely, the physical basis of the I of this lifetime derived from the parents of this lifetime.[6]

By stressing how it is through  a process of habituation that we putatively come to see something that is not us as us,  he introduces the radical notion that, in the same way, it becomes possible to re-conceive the other who is likewise not us–as us.[7] The purpose: by coming to regard others as “I” via a creative process of familiarization, we lay the transformative foundation for apprehending their suffering not like, but as our own. We come to cherish them, not indirectly but immediately, because directly. The impact and significance of this shift from remoteness/alienability to profound intimacy is inestimable. It requires that we reconceive the polarity embedded in the very notion of empathy.

But we must take care here  not to assume that familiarization enables us to literally make, or better still, actually subsume the other into an I that is our “I”. We are not dealing with  a large-scale amoeba-like process of self-absorption and digestive incorporation! Growing fat on eating other’s “I”s merely by naming, designating them as such. Over and over! That is a sci fi scenario worthy of B-grades and films by David Kronenberg (Scanners).


Tsongkhapa is emphatic that the purpose of “what is called “exchanging self and others” and “making oneself into the other and making others into oneself” does not mean training in the mind that thinks: “The other person is me” and “His eyes and so forth are my eyes and so forth.” “Rather” he explains, “it is to exchange the rank of the two–the mind that cherishes oneself and (2) the mind that neglects others–and to generate the mind that cherishes others like we cherish ourselves and neglects ourselves like we neglect others.”[8]

He conclusively articulates our goal:

“In short, we will act for the sake of eliminating the suffering of others without concern for our own happiness.”[9]

What underlies this radical reshaping–involving as it does a fundamental rewiring and dismantling of customary identification and compulsively-driven  allegiances–is the reality that such a shift and exchange of rank is only possible, or conceivable, if oneself and others lack inherent existence; substantial existence; existence from their own side as indeed do “my body” and “your body.” Moreover, one can only oppose the manner in which we misconceive self and other as “distinct entities by nature” by generating the remedy which is wisdom realizing emptiness. Only then can we  arrive at the realization that you and I are distinct in conventional provisional or putative terms because not distinct “by nature.” Thus we are able to  work at adjusting or exchanging the ranking, especially as the ranking is itself not founded as fastened-on, or  inviolably fixed. In a word, it is adventitious.

Tsongkhapa  elaborates  this point under the heading: Removing the obstacles of considering oneself and others as distinct individuals:

Separating the two, oneself and others–the basis of one’s own and others’ happiness and suffering–into distinct entities, like blue and yellow, you hold them as established in this way. Then, with respect to the happiness and suffering based on them, you think: “Since it is mine, it should be accomplished or removed. Since it is someone else’s it is to be neglected.” Therefore, as an antidote to this, think: “Myself and others are not distinct entities by nature. Rather, as we look at one another, the mind “other” arises in me, whereas the mind “I” arises in the other person.

Thus this is like “the mountain over here” and the mountain over there.” For instance, from this perspective the mind “the mountain over there: arises with respect to the mountain over there, when to go to the mountain over there, the mind “the mountain over here” arises. Therefore this is not the same as the fact that in whoever looks at the color blue, a mind of just blue will arises, whereas a mind of another color will not arise.[10]

Finally, we might apply this account to the earlier posted example of bone marrow donor and host. The thought “my marrow” arises in dependence on the contra-distinguishing thought that my marrow is here (with me), whereas your marrow is over there (with you). What appears to you as “my marrow” (referring to what is inside your bones) appears to me as “your marrow” whereas  what appears to me as “my marrow” (referring to what is inside my bones) appears to you as “your marrow” even though the same marrow is simultaneously appearing to me as mine just as is yours to me is appearing to you as mine!  It is the same when that mountain becomes this mountain and this mountain becomes that mountain, depending on where we stand.


If I cross a river, this bank becomes that bank and that bank becomes this bank. Yet my “this bank” is “that bank” to someone standing on the other side, just as it was for me when I was formerly located there. If  “entities by nature” (as Tsongkhapa puts it) their identities could not jump around nor could variable perspectives  be observed playing  in this dynamic manner. Indeed, it becomes debatable whether we would be able to ever or ever swim across a river at all for isn’t “across” predicated upon the notion, or rather, motion of changing sides? To go over to where one currently isn’t? We can recall here also the journey of the sperm to meet the egg.

The ignorant manner in which we bifurcate appearances into concrete self-determining absolutes is entirely misleading. Spurious in every way. It blocks our affections and clogs the prospect of sheer open flexibility in the possible ways of relating to self and others as well as conceiving relations beyond the strangulating boundaries of self-grasping/self-cherishing.

Tsongkhapa summarizes his account of exchanging self with others with a powerful quotation that has been the inspirational catalyst  for this post:

In this manner, the Compendium of Trainings also teaches that self and other are not established by their own entities but merely posited in dependence on the point of view:

Through familiarity with the equality
of other and self bodhichitta grows firm.
Self and other are relational;
As fictitious as that side and this side.
The slope is not that side by itself.
Depending on the perspective it’s this side,
The self in itself is not established.
Depending on the perspective it’s other.”[11]


So,  what happens if we take away the wall? What “side” are we then on? Yes, I am thinking of you Mr Trump. Our social relations are meaningfully and our ethical responsibility  immense because all things, including ourselves, exist interdependently. And it is for the same reason that our actions of love and compassion have palpable efficacy. As indeed might our anger and hatred. Alas. When immersed in bewilderment, on both personal and collective scales, fences may be   asked to embody the aggressive power of bifurcation in interminable fashion.

[1] Tsongkhapa, translated by Philip Quarcoo, Middle Length Lam-Rim: Lam rim ’bring ba. Portland: FPMT, 2012, 146. Draft version.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tsongkhapa:

However here in the case of reification by ignorance, there is, with regard to objects, be they persons or other phenomena, a conception that those phenomena have ontological status–a way of existing–in and of themselves, without being posited through the force of an awareness. The referent object that is thus apprehended by that ignorant conception, the independent ontological status of those phenomena, is identified as a hypothetical “self” or “intrinsic nature.

He quotes Candrakīrti’s Commentary on the “Four Hundred Stanzas:

It is that which exists essentially, intrinsically, autonomously, and with out depending on another.

And comments:

Thus, he says that those are synonyms. “Without depending on another” does not mean not depending on causes and conditions. Instead, “other” refers to the subject, i.e. a conventional consciousness, and something is said not to depend on another due to not being posited through the force of that conventional consciousness. Therefore, “autonomously” refers to the nature of an object that has its own unique ontological state or manner of being. It is just this that is called “essence” or “intrinsic nature.” 

Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo). Volume 3. Editor in Chief, Joshua W. C. Cutler (New York: Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2000, 2002, 2004), 212.

[4] Tsongkhapa points out that “if a person is established by way of its own entity, its former and later moments could not be the same continuum.” Middle Length Lam-Rim, 258. See also Hopkins, Final Wisdom, 70. This is because each moment would be inherently distinct and thus would not relate to any other. The example is given of being a god in an earlier rebirth and a human in a later. These would bear no more relation to me that a god or a human of a different personal continuum, say yours.

[5] Tsongkhapa:

But what fault is there if you assert the two, the self and the aggregates, to be inherently different? The fault is set forth in the Root Text on Wisdom:

If it were other than the aggregates,
It would not have their characteristics.

In this regard, if the self were different from the aggregates and established by way of its entity, it would not have the characteristics that characterize the aggregates as compounded phenomena: production, disintegration, and abidance. It would be like a horse, for example, that does not have the characteristics of an ox because it is established as an object other than an ox.

Ibid., 258-9. See also Hopkins, Final Wisdom, 70-71.

[6] In the case of intro-vitro fertilization and test-tube babies the logic is still intact. But again it is necessary to add here that, in the Buddhist account,  the “I” is not just labeled to the physical base but also to the continuum of mind currently associated with that physical base. If it was otherwise, as earlier described, then my corpse  would suffice as a suitable base to label “I”, even post-death. Buddhism also  talks of rebirth in “formless realms” where we do not have (in the sense of acquire) a gross physical body. In such cases, the mind  (immersed in deep meditative absorption) alone becomes the base of labeling “I”. Yet even such subtle meditative consciousnesses are yoked to a motile base of subtle material energy called “wind” or “air” [vāyu, māruta). This fact is taken as the basis of penetrating esoteric tantric practices: “Through the manipulation of the subtle airs, which are the motile vehicles or “mounts” of various consciousnesses, the yogin is said to be enabled to be aware of the various levels of subtle mind. later, this skill is used to guide the consciousness through the dissolution process (homologous with the death process), whereupon the subtlest consciousness–the “brilliance” (prabhāsvara), wherein mind and matter, subject and object, are nondual–may be understood.” Wedemeyer, Christian K, trans., ed. and intro. Āryadeva’s Lamp that Integrates the Practices (Caryāmelāpakapradīpa): The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism According to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition (New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2007), 95-6.

[7] Śāntideva:

Through acquaintance has the thought of “I” arisen
Towards this impersonal body;
So in a similar way, why should it not arise
Towards other living beings?

Śāntideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1976), verse 114, 118.

[8] Tsongkhapa, Middle Length Lam-Rim, 146.

[9] Ibid, 146-7. Geshe Doga comments on this passage: “Just as we wish for happiness and don’t wish to experience any kind of misery or suffering, likewise others also naturally wish for happiness and do not wish to experience any kind of suffering, therefore it is befitting to take the happiness of other people into consideration, as well as the need for others to be free of suffering. The reason why we are focused mostly on one’s own needs and cherishing oneself is that we are habituated to just taking one’s own concerns into account and making that our primary focus. Whereas, when we –familiarize our mind with considering the welfare, needs and concerns of other people, then that can slowly and gradually become an attitude that we will naturally be able to adopt, and we will be able to take the wellbeing of others into consideration, by placing others into happiness and removing their suffering. These are the ways to train one’s mind in being able to use reason and logic to consider the welfare of others, and taking the prime focus off oneself and placing it upon others. ” Geshe Doga, Middling Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, translated by Venerable Michael Lobsang Yeshe, Tara Institute Study Group, 23 November 2016, 3. Tara Institute edited transcript. See

[10] Middle Length Lam-Rim, 147.

[11] Ibid, 147.



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