What Appears Back?



Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

Earlier (see last post) I described how Everything Comes From the Mind. The next stage of realizing the emptiness of phenomena is the analysis of determining how what has been labeled by your mind appears back to you.

Let’s return to the example of M.

In brief, according to the Prāsaṅgikas, the M appears back to you in a way that is not just merely labeled by mind. It appears to be some thing slightly more than that—something appearing from there. So that subtle hallucination is the object to be refuted.

The Svātantrika Mādhyamaka believe that though the M is labeled by the mind there should be something from its own side. Therefore–for them–it is not merely labeled by the mind.[1] But, according to Prāsaṅgika, this something additional [appearing from there] is the object of refutation: this is what we have to realize is totally nonexistent, totally empty. Only then will we have realized the Prāsaṅgika view, which is the right Middle Way view avoiding the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. We will have realized Guru Śākyamuni’s view, and Nāgārjuna’s view, and Lama Tsongkhapa’s view.

First of all there is a line like this, M, on the blackboard or paper, whatever. Because you have already been introduced to M by your teachers and have been taught to recognize it, due to seeing the line you are made to label M and not any other letter such as W or A or E or C. It is significant that you don’t label other things due to seeing a particular design causing you to produce and apply the specific label M. Without such introduction you don’t have reason to label “M.”[2] Only by following this evolution do you finally see M. The appearance of M comes at the end! M comes from the mind and just as your view of M comes from your mind, each independent person’s view of M comes from their own mind. Because M comes from our own mind, you don’t see it before your mind has labeled and believed in it. Until this happens, you don’t see that this is M. You only see it as M after someone has introduced you to M, and taught you to label and believe in that label.


So the question is now:

Where is the M? Is the M outside of the mind or inside the mind?

The Cittamātra School says that everything is just merely the nature of the mind. The desire, form and formless realms, for them, are only the mind. But they are not saying that M is mind. Rather, it means that all the phenomena are just only the mind in the sense that all phenomena come from the mind.[3] This cuts off the idea of an external creator of your life. Your life, your happiness, your suffering, your hell, your enlightenment, your saṃsāra, your liberation, your six sense objects, your body, your mind—all are created by your mind. So there is a creator: your own mind! The idea that your mind is the creator of your happiness and suffering is a basic Buddhist concept. When you analyze correctly you discover that it not just idle philosophy made up by somebody: it is the reality!

So, for the Cittamātra, M is mind.[4] This contrasts with the Prāsaṅgika presentation of emptiness in which the analysis proposes that M doesn’t exist either in the mind nor outwardly. So the question to analyze is: does M exist in the mind or externally? According to the Cittamātra it looks as though the M is staying in the mind very comfortably. Very warm. Probably eating dinner!



Where is the M? Inside or outside the mind? To answer we must again  fully understand how M evolves, and at what point it first appears.

Consider now how in the time before you were taught by somebody that this is M, because you are not educated, your mind did not label this is M and did not believe in that.

Therefore, there was no appearance of M at that time.

You just saw these lines like this, ok? You must make this clear.


You do see the lines but you don’t know them as M.

What this means is that at that time you are seeing the base to be labeled “M” but you are not seeing the label that labels this as “M.”

Only in the immediate next second after you have labeled “M,” do you see M here, outside.

Outside, but on this line you see M.


You see M outside on that base, that line.

You see M there!

You see M there, specifically, on that line.

The point is that M appears to be existing there, externally.

You are unable to see the M as merely labeled by mind.

This is because in the next second immediately after being merely labeled it appears (although it was just labeled a second before)  as not merely labeled by your mind.

It appears outside, on the base.

On the base, as if it is findable: there!

So, on that base, on that line, there appears M.

A “real” M on that line.

“Real M” it says!

“I am a real M here”!

It is appearing real because it is appearing as real from there. Existing from its own side.

So M is appearing to you on the base.

red letter M

From the very minute that you see M on the base, from there, it is wrong—mistaken. This M that appears real in the sense that it is independent, existing from its own side is an hallucination.


Considered against the great pile of hallucinations that are the different Buddhist schools’ views of the object to be refuted, this M appearing there as the real one in our view is the most subtle one. It is the Prāsaṅgika School’s object of refutation. It is the M appearing to you not just merely labeled by the mind but as something slightly more than that, as though it has existence from its own side, not just merely labeled by the mind.

By seeing the base, this line, your mind merely imputed M.[5] But how can it possibly be there on that line, over that line? Even from the point of view of its evolution, how can it be on that?


So now, if you search for it, where is it? Where is this M that you believe exists as it appears to you and which you believe is on this line? Does it exist on this first line, or this line or this line? No, it is not there. You can’t find it.

Does it exist on this line going up?

It is not there?

Does it exist on this line going down?


There is no M on this line nor this line nor this nor this. Nowhere can you find it.

This real M appearing from there in the sense of being a truly existent independent one, existing by its own nature, from its own side, can’t be found on any of these lines.

It doesn’t exist. Nor does it exist on the combination of lines put together.

Even on the collection of lines it cannot be found. In another meditation we will return to this point.



The conclusion we must reach is that the real M that appears to you [snaps fingers] in the minute after you merely impute it, can’t be found either on the lines or anywhere in the world!


Because it doesn’t exist!


This proves it is a hallucination.


Its unfindability on the base of either that design, or anywhere else, proves it is hallucinatory.


If, on the other hand, you could find it on the base as it appears, then it would exist inherently. There would be a truly existent M on that line, existing from its own side. But if you could find M on this line, then you could pack up the rest -the other three lines—because they would no longer be needed.

The M would not need to rest or rely on these parts!

But,  even on just this single line, where is it? This is how you must research.

What we must achieve then is the realization that the real M appearing independently right after merely imputing M, is totally nonexistent, totally empty right there.

Not even the slightest atom of such an M exists.

What you are then seeing is the Ultimate nature of the M. The emptiness of the M.

You are discovering the very nature of M which is emptiness.



The analysis used for the I is exactly the same as that used to look for the real M on the base. Not only do we not find the real I existing from its own side (not merely labeled, appearing independent), but we don’t find the mere I that is merely labeled to the aggregates either.

Here you have to remember the difference between the Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika Schools concerning whether or not a phenomenon is findable on the base. According to the Prāsaṅgikas, if you can find the I on these aggregates, then that means it is truly existent and existent from its own side. It has to be! But, in reality, you cannot find it, whether you search from the tip of the hairs of the head down to the tips of the toes, even to the tip of the nose, and inside the nose, and then even, if they are present, the hairs of the nose!

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

The first thing we have to realize is that the I or the M that is appearing to you as truly existent is totally empty there, totally empty there. So this is what I normally call the “mudrā of meditating on emptiness.”[6] I also call this the “mudrā of the object of refutation” or the “mudrā of the hallucination.”

This mudra therefore describes or expresses the object to be refuted. You must discover exactly this as what is empty where it appears. In the same manner that the truly existent M is not any of the lines or their combination, neither is the I appearing from its own side existing at all as the form, the feeling, the cognition, the compounding aggregates (or compositional factors), consciousness, nor all together. Nor is it existing on the form, the feeling and so forth. Even if you look for it on these individually or all together, you won’t be able to find it anywhere. This proves it is totally nonexistent.

So the question  remains: where does the merely imputed M exist? Does it exist on any of these lines, or their collections? Does it exist externally on the base?



[1] As Hopkins explains, “Bhāvaviveka’s school, Sautrāntika-Svātantrika, asserts that phenomena appear correctly in terms of their inherent existence to a non-defective sense consciousness. Bhāvaviveka agrees that phenomena appear to sense consciousness to exist by way of their own character and asserts that they exist so.” Meditation, 450. In contrast, the Prāsaṅgika position is that “not only do ordinary beings misconceive the nature of phenomena but also phenomena appear to them in a mistaken aspect. In other words, an assenting to an incorrect appearance of phenomena as inherently existent is what constitutes the misconception that phenomena inherently exist” (ibid., 449–50). Tsongkhapa explores these issues in Illumination of the Thought in relation to the magician’s illusions. See Klein, Path, 170–74.

[2] Consider the following example given by Ven Losang Gyatso:

For instance, suppose we are standing at the edge of a jungle and hear the roar of an animal which we recognize to be the sound of a tiger. We can only recognize the sound as the sound of a tiger if we know what a tiger is and judge that there is one lurking in the undergrowth. At the same time, it is only the roar of the tiger that indicates to us the presence of a tiger, supposing we can neither see nor smell the beast. In this situation our realization of a tiger and the sound of tiger are simultaneous and mutually dependent. This is how those [who] refute inherent existence affirm all the phenomena of the world, through their dependent relationships with each other. There is no fixed independent essence to any phenomena but phenomena are not figments of our imagination like the child of a barren woman. When phenomena are imputed to their parts no endless chains of imputation of parts upon smaller parts are observed but the cognition of the whole and the parts each rely on the other. This reliance is like an old man who gets up with the aid of [a] stick. In order to rise, the man leans on his stick. The man is therefore supported by his stick, but at the same time, the stick is supported by the man. Harmony, 72.

Likewise, Lamrimpa writes,

At the outset we may say ‘This is called a flower.’ However, as soon as we say, ‘This is a flower,’ we begin grasping onto the flower as if it were truly existent from the side of its basis of designation. We can ascertain this experientially. For instance, when you are introduced to a person, you may try to remember, ‘This person is called Tashi.’ When you meet the person for a second time you may wonder, ‘What is this person called?’ It gets easier and easier, and after a while you say, ‘This is Tashi.’ Bear in mind that the basis of designation and the conceptual designation of the object are simultaneous. As soon as something is designated it exists. Realizing Emptiness, 54–55.

[3] Hopkins explains that although “a sense consciousness of a sentient being perceives objects as if they were distant and cut off,” the “objects declared to be existent in the Chittamātra system are not cut off.” Meditation, 368. He also observes how, for the Cittamātrin, the object, such as a form (or in our example, M) and the subject (mind) are considered the same entity but different isolates, “not synonyms but mutually exclusive with one never the other” (ibid.).

[4] According to Cittamātra, M is mind in the sense that it is in the nature of mind, but this doesn’t mean it is a mind, for it is not a cognizer. See Cabezón, Dose, 325. This distinction is crucial. It will be further explored  in later posts. 

[5] Observes Lamrimpa, “For one thing to be the basis of designation for a designated object, simply seeing that basis should enable a knowledgeable person to recognize the designated object.” Realizing Emptiness, 36.

Likewise, Geshe Rabten writes, “When I talk of the existence of things depending on the base of imputation and the imputing consciousness, you may ask what we mean by the base of imputation. This can be illustrated by catching sight of a person. When we see someone, the thought that ‘this is so-and-so’ arises. The form or body of the person, which is the base for this thought is the base of imputation for that person, and the base for his conventional existence.” Treasury, 231.

Note that it is not the form or body in general that is the base of labeling person: it “becomes” the base when it functions or serves as the “reason” (as Lama Zopa Rinpoche has earlier explained) “for this thought” labelling “person” to actually label person. “All phenomena,” Geshe Rabten explains, “exist dependently on the combination of the base of the object with that which is imputed to it by an imputing consciousness.” Treasury of Dharma, 215-6. Therefore, a base to be a base, is itself dependent on that which is imputed to it:

For example, when we see our interpreter’s face, the concept of Georges arises in our minds. At this time Georges’ face is the basis 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 basis of imputation at that time. Likewise, when a feeling arises within us it becomes the base for the concept of the “I”. 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 basis of imputation. We must bear in mind that this is speaking from a very general point of view. Ibid.

Geshe Rabten further illustrates with the famous example of money:

Many things exist without our first having to label them. In other words, things do not cease to exist conventionally, if we have not yet labelled them. As an example, let us imagine a country is planning to issue new banknotes. First the authorities prepare a design which is then printed on small pieces of paper. Now, although we have a small piece of paper with a special design on it, it is not yet what we can call a banknote that will be recognized as such by all the citizens of that country. It is the base of imputation of the new money, but not until it is publicly announced that such a piece of paper with a particular design will in future be money, does the public label it money. Until they impute money to it, it is just another piece of paper. Only when it has been labelled as money does it become legal tender. Hence, through the combination of the paper as the base of labelling and the label ‘money’: dollars, francs, or rupees come into being. This is true of all phenomena; there must be a base and the imputing consciousness. Through a combination of the two, everything exists. Although we understand this clearly, the realization of how things exist in this way can only become fully apparent after we have realized emptiness.” Ibid., 231-2.

Thus, given the right context (i.e. New Ireland, Pacific Ocean) , a cowrie shell might be a valid base for labelling currency and working very successfully as such. No worries. 


[6] “Mudrā” (phyag rgya) or “seal” appears to be used here according to its specific etymological meaning within the term “mahāmudrā” (phyag rgya chen po) or “great seal”: “Mahamudra is a Sanskrit word meaning “great seal” and refers to the nature of all phenomena. Just as a wax seal is stamped on legal documents to authenticate their signature, likewise the nature of reality is figuratively stamped upon everything as a guarantee that nothing exists in a fantasized, impossible way. The fact that everything is devoid of existing in a fantasized, impossible manner thus validates that things actually exist. Mahamudra also refers to sophisticated Buddhist systems of meditation and practice to realize this sealing practice.” Alex Berzin in H. H. The Dalai Lama, The Precious Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra, 19. Ian Coghlan glosses mudrā as “a symbolic representation manifesting as a gesture, consort, posture, reality, sign, axiom, commitment, ornament, and so on.” See Kirti Tsenshap Rinpoché, Principles, 449.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s playful employment may capture multiple meanings, particularly as he is proposing we carry this “seal’ (so often laden with complex esoteric connotations) into the mundane heart of everyday transactions where it is to be vigorously deployed as tool for inducing realization of emptiness—on the ground, or even while on the run, as it were. Not just on one’s meditation cushion.




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