Is The Supermarket In The Mind Or Not?


Photo: Ross Moore. 


Regarding the Cittamātra, or Mind Only position, Lama Zopa Rinpoche earlier touched upon how, for them it “looks as though the M is staying in the mind very comfortably. Very warm. Probably eating dinner!” This is because “M is the mind.” This was contrasted to the Prāsaṅgika presentation according to which “M” can’t be found to exist “either in the mind or outwardly.” Instead, it exists as mere[1] imputation in dependence on its designatory base. Our teachers’ and parents’ roles, and the way infants gradually learn to identify significant marks on the blackboard and the other interlocked ingredients upon which seeing M is predicated, were described.

If you are entering the blog for the first time, catching up on the last two posts is recommended at this point: Everything Comes From the Mind and What Appears Back. This is because the  arguments are becoming increasingly intricate and require their background.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche now pursues the debate with the Cittamātra, or Mind Only position, via the continuing question: where is the M?



Student: It’s not entirely in the mind. There has to be something outside for it to associate with. There must be something outside.

Rinpoche: So M is half and half?

Student: Maybe 80/20

Rinpoche: So you split the M! The M is written on the paper or the blackboard. So if half is in the mind, how is that so? Is it the back half or the front half of M that is inside? Huh? Or is the base outside and the label inside? So, if that is the case, where is the M? M is inside the mind right, not outside? Or why shouldn’t the base be inside the mind? If the label is inside the mind, the base must be also inside the mind. It’s exactly the same. This is because the base is also a label. What is called base is a name! So it is in the mind right? It is the same as what we call the I. The I is labeled on the aggregates which are the base. But the aggregates are also a label because the general aggregates are labeled onto the collection of five.

Student: There’s no M if there isn’t something outside to be called M with which the mind can associate with M, for the mind to think M. I think there has to be something outside to make the M. The M wouldn’t exist without something on the outside.

Rinpoche: But why outside? Are you saying the base is outside or what?

Student: Whatever we label it, whether base or phenomena, it seems to be outside.

Rinpoche: So the base, whatever phenomenon you label M, is outside? So one important question: why do you think the base is outside?

Student: Maybe it’s wrong to use outside and inside, because when you say outside…

Rinpoche: Outside means outside of the mind!

Student: Maybe we have to have an inside and outside in order to distinguish an I?

Rinpoche: So we live life with the distinguishing of outside and inside but, in reality, there is no outside and inside? So then there is no base and no label?

Student: Not ultimately.[3]

Rinpoche: Yes, so conventionally it exists?

Student: Well, not really, but you could say that.

Rinpoche: Huh? What are the last words. I didn’t catch?

Student: Not even conventionally.

Rinpoche: So conventionally it does exist or doesn’t exist?

Student: Not even conventionally.

Rinpoche: Huh? So it doesn’t even exist conventionally?

Student: No.

Rinpoche: The base and the label?

Student: No, because it’s a hallucination. It does, but it doesn’t.

Rinpoche: Uh? What?

Student: It’s like it does, but it doesn’t. You can’t find it.

Rinpoche: It does and doesn’t?

Student: No matter how much you seek out the base and the label conventionally, it can’t be found. As much as the M on the M.

Rinpoche: It can’t be found?

Student: Impossible.

Rinpoche: That’s right. That’s right.[4]

Student: But if a baby came into the room, they’d just crawl over it.

Rinpoche: Did you find M there, on the paper? Can you show it to her? [Rinpoche is referring to a female student sitting beside the debate defender]

Student: It looks like a very steep mountain top.

Rinpoche: Did you find M on the paper? Did you find M on the paper?

Student: Merely labeled M.

Rinpoche: On her notebook?

Another Student: If the M’s staying outside, everything that the M is not, is it inside?

Rinpoche: What?

Student: So does the M stay outside and everything that the M is not stays inside?

Rinpoche: Let me finish with the earlier point. Does suffering exist or not?

Student: To a human who is deluded. But not truly in–and-of itself.

Rinpoche: No, I’m not asking that. I’m not asking truly or not truly. I’m just asking: does suffering exist or not? If I ask, does suffering truly exist, you answer no, but that is not my question here.

Student: Yes, there is suffering.

Rinpoche: It exists. But according to your point of view, it doesn’t exist because it’s merely labeled. Before you said that. You said that ultimately it doesn’t exist and then you said that it doesn’t conventionally exist.[5] The M doesn’t exist because it is merely labeled. Isn’t that what you said?

Student: That’s right.

Rinpoche: The M doesn’t exist because cause and conditions exist. Because it has cause and conditions it doesn’t exist?

Student: Oh! Oh! Oh! Where are we going here? I’m not sure. I’m not exactly following your lead here!

Rinpoche: Well, I’m just referring to what was just mentioned. I thought you said M doesn’t exist because it’s merely labeled. So that’s why I asked whether or not suffering exists because suffering is also merely labeled by the mind. So does suffering exist or not?

Student: It depends on who is looking.

Rinpoche: Huh?

Student: It depends on who is perceiving the suffering because for a buddha, if you’re massaging one arm, and chopping off the other, they are both experienced as blissfully delightful.

Rinpoche: What?

Student: I mean, there’s no discrimination. I mean is there an atom of suffering when we break it down? Can we truly find the suffering on the suffering?

Rinpoche: So somebody is doing what to a buddha? Can you say that again?

Student: Somebody massaging one arm and sawing the other off.

Rinpoche: Yes, then, does the buddha suffer or not?

Student: I doubt if the buddha would perceive it as pleasure or pain.

Rinpoche: So the buddha doesn’t see it as pain? So the buddha doesn’t experience it as pain?

Student: No pain or pleasure, well, I’m probably getting into realms here that I haven’t imagined yet!

Rinpoche: Uh?

Student: I couldn’t say how a buddha’s mind would perceive it, but I would think it would be one taste in emptiness, wouldn’t it? I’m sounding like a perfected parrot now, aren’t I. The perfection of parrothood! Anyway, I’m not so sure, Rinpoche.

Rinpoche: I couldn’t hear clearly. But anyway, you said the base is outside. What is the reason? It is important to discuss and analyse. Why do you think the base is outside but the label is inside? But isn’t what we call a base a name?

Another Student: It’s more of a form, a structure, a physical form existing. It could be a name, it could be something just physically existing, except that we don’t call it that and then it becomes the thing.

Rinpoche: Huh?

Student: We call the lines shaped like two N’s or two mountains and it becomes an M. But the two lines exist. Those lines exist.

Rinpoche: Two lines what? Huh?

Student: No, what I am saying is that the lines exist on the blackboard.

Rinpoche: The lines exist?

Student: On the blackboard.

Rinpoche: On the blackboard?

Student: And when we call it M, M becomes a label in our minds. But the lines exist. For a child who doesn’t know what those lines are, the child wouldn’t know it is an M.

Another student: But does it exist for a blind person who can’t see it?

Student: The blind can’t see but it still exists. It does. It’s different. You just can’t see it, but it still exists. You cannot say that it doesn’t exist just because you can’t see it.

Other student: But how can you prove to the blind person that it exists? They can’t see it. They can’t see the lines.

Student: I think, if you can’t see it, you have to take somebody’s word for it.

Other student: So does the base have to be in the mind if they can’t actually perceive it?

Rinpoche: So, which is the base. Is this line the base for the M? Right?

Student: Yes.

Rinpoche: So to be able to say that it is the base to be labeled M, don’t you have to see something before that which causes the mind to choose the particular label? The base?

Student: Right.

Rinpoche: So your mind then labels “base” right?

Student: Yes.

Rinpoche: OK. So now here, the base has become the label right?

Student: Right.

Rinpoche: So now here the base becomes the label to be imputed on that line right?

Student: Right.

Rinpoche: So therefore the base cannot be outside. The base should be in your mind. It is the same as what you said: “the M is in the mind.” For the same reason the base should be in the mind. So is the base inside or outside?[6]

Student: What you say makes sense but I find it difficult to understand.

Rinpoche: Uh?

Student: Rinpoche, what you are saying makes sense, but I find it difficult to understand how the base can be in the mind as well.

Rinpoche: So, anyway, what I have been describing here is something of the difference between the Cittamātra (Mind Only) and the other traditions. It might be confusing but also it might be helpful to analyze in this way.



So another question: when you go shopping, is the department store in your mind or not? Is the supermarket in your mind?

Student: No, a generic image or a concept is in your mind, but the supermarket is not.

Rinpoche: What?

Student: You have a concept of a supermarket in your mind, or a generic image of a supermarket, but the supermarket isn’t in your mind?

Rinpoche: So your concept is in the mind but the supermarket’s not in the mind?

Student: That’s right. Yes.

Rinpoche: So M is not in the mind?

Student: The concept of M is in the mind while the basis of imputation is on the blackboard.

Rinpoche: Yeah, yeah. Basis of what? Refutation?

Student: Basis of imputation.

Rinpoche: Imputation, basis of imputation is on the blackboard?

Student: Yes.

Rinpoche: Ok, so where’s M?

Student: M is a vibration of sound.

Rinpoche: I thought you were getting better and better, then….

Student: M is a label we apply as soon as we see the basis.

Rinpoche: What?

Student: As soon as the basis appears, the mind labels M.

Rinpoche: Yes, but you didn’t answer whether it’s inside or outside!

Rinpoche continues:

I am just giving you more ideas to think about. If the M is in the mind [Rinpoche is arguing hypothetically here to draw out the implications of the Mind Only position],  then it is the same thing with the supermarket.

When you go shopping the supermarket should be in the mind. All the shop-keepers, all the billions of things in the department store, would be in your mind. Even the whole building should be in your mind. Then, if M is in the mind, then it would be the same with the Iraq War. A war that is happening now should be in the mind not outside. Then, if it’s just in the mind, then maybe it can be just dreaming or a visualization: not actually happening. Somebody might be imagining it or visualizing it. It is just a mere dream. So then we have dinner in the mind. From the cook who is in the mind. From a plate that is in the mind. Spoon that is in the mind. Go to the toilet that is in the mind.

Anyway, I think we might stop here for now, except there is one other thing! If everything, like M, is in the mind, then killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, cheating, lying and so forth wouldn’t break the law of any country. This is because it’s in the mind. The other thing is that it doesn’t create negative karma because it’s in the mind. So we have to think about that. Of course it means that if we haven’t broken the law, then one doesn’t have to go to court to have one’s cases heard, nor go to prison. One would also save a lot of money and nothing would become negative karma! What is happening would be the same as dreaming. So in the dream, if you have stolen somebody’s car, then the neighbor still has the car in reality. So it doesn’t become negative karma. You must say, however, that negative thoughts arising in a dream do leave negative imprints. But there is no completing negative karma. Even if you have driven their Mercedes or this limousine many miles to another country in a dream, that person still has the car.



Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] “Mere” (tsam, mātra), as used above in “merely labeled,” can also be translated as “simply,” or “only.” As Tsongkhapa explains, as a qualifier it bears great significance: “the term ‘only’ eliminates anything that is not a subjective convention; it does not at all eliminate that the object posited is established by valid cognition.” See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 128–29.

[2] Refer to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Teachings from the Mahamudra Retreat,  Mylor (Adelaide) Australia, 09/04-04/2004. See Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.

[3] Although “ultimate” can refer to absolute reality (as in don dam par grub pa) it can also refer (as is intended above) to “what is negated.” See Klein, Path, 117. Therefore, as has been previously noted, we must contextually observe its diverse connotations. The point remains: an ultimate, in the second sense, is “not established for a consciousness of reality” (ibid.). See also Jinpa, Self, Reality and Reason, 99.

[4] This affirmation pertains to the point that no conventional phenomena can be found when we move beyond simple acceptance (or discovery) of its existence (as established by conventional valid cognition  (e.g. “yes my teacher just drew the letter M and not the letter N on the blackboard”) and engage instead in analytically searching for it further in terms of how it exists i.e. is M sitting amongst or spread over the parts that are its basis of designation, etc. Such investigation is no longer epistemological but ontological and involves/requires an ultimate rather than conventional analysis. Kensur Yeshey Tupden outlines the distinction:

There are two kinds of analysis [associated with valid cognition]; that which investigates to discover the entity [which is the conventional object] and that which analyzes again after the entity has been established [to discover, not what it is, but how it exists]. For example, when one uses [conventional] analysis to find a watch that has been missing, the entity of that watch is not [yet] established [for one’s own mind]. However, this is not an [ultimate] analytical mind in relation to that [entity]. When you find the watch, you take it in hand: “The watch is here.” You do not search for it [further]. If you did, this would be a mind of analysis and investigation. Without analysis, you were easily able to find what you sought, but once you have the watch in front of you), you will not find it. Prior to locating it, the watch is not established by valid cognition in [the limited sense] that it is not established by your valid cognition. It is, however, established by valid cognition in general. [The Collected Topics textbooks define “existent thing” as “that which is observed by valid cognition.”] In short, if you search for something prior to establishing it by valid cognition, you can find it. Once it is found, if you analytically search it out, it is not there. The consciousness analyzing conventionalities does not realize the mode of abiding [of an object]; thus, its object is necessarily a conventional truth. Therefore, the two [types of analytical or reasoning consciousnesses, ultimate and conventional] are different.” Path to the Middle, 46-7.

Further to the same point: “The subjects, conventionalities, are not posited in the perspective of analysis by reasoning, because they must be posited in the perspective of non-investigatory and non-analytical worldly innate [consciousness].” See Hopkins, Maps of the Profound, 559.  



That Lama Zopa Rinpoche is proposing here that we do, however, analytically investigate conventionalities beyond acceptance of what is posited by ordinary worldly perspective (that is to say, employ  an ultimate analysis to search for the merely labelled M) appears to carry particular pedagogic purpose: to render it clearer how conventional truths only exist as what is posited/established by “non-investigating non-analytical mistaken awarenesses of common beings” to whom “adherence to true existence has not been conquered by antidotes” Ibid. The Dalai Lama observes that there is a sense in which analyzing conventional existence (though not the intention or express purpose of an ultimate analysis) can, nonetheless, yield insight into how conventionalities exist as dependent arisings:

According to the Middle Way school of Chandrakirti, even though things have relative or conventional existence, it is not necessary that they should be found to exist under fine analysis. According to this interpretation, when you subject a phenomenon to such analysis you cannot find it existing of its own accord. Because you are unable to find it standing autonomously, the conclusion is that things arise in dependence on other causes and conditions. Therefore, phenomena are said to validly exist as designated by names and thought.” Awakening the Mind, 212.

At times in this blog, Lama Zopa Rinpoche will employ such an analysis of conventionalities to precisely this effect.  The probing line of enquiry certainly rattles what we take for granted as ordinary ( ie. self-presenting) reality and thus shakes open the door to an even more probing investigation.   

Newland,  following Tsongkhapa, likewise explains that the apparent “evaporation” of conventional things (such as a letter M or a watch or a car) under scrutiny not of a conventional but an ultimate analysis, directly relates to the fact that they don’t ultimately exist:

This means that when we use reason to analyse exactly how it is that a person, or a table, or a car exists–just what its final ontological status is–we do not come upon, or find, any definitive basis or ground upon which to establish it. The vivid reality of the car seems to evaporate under analytic scrutiny. The mind seeking to know “what the car really is” does not arrive at the ultimate car essence–or at any kind of car at all. If it did, then we would say that a car can withstand ultimate analysis and that a car ultimately exists. Instead, the mind analysing the car arrives at last at the emptiness of the car–that is, the car’s lack of any essential nature.” See Introduction to Emptiness, 16.  



[5] Conventional existence (kun rdzob tu yod, saṃvṛtisat) may be also translated as “conventionality” or “in conventional terms.” Without first comprehending the meaning of “conventional” or “all-obscuring truth” (kun rdzob bden pa, savtisatya) it is difficult to discern what conventional existence might mean. Jinpa writes:

According to Tsongkhapa, to say that things exist conventionally is to say that they exist in accordance with the conventions of the world. There cannot be any proof of the conventional existence of persons outside the framework of everyday language. Propositions such as, ‘I was at yesterday’s lecture,’ ‘I see this beautiful painting,’ ‘I am in pain,’ ‘I am thinking,’…and so on constitute what we can roughly call ‘proofs’ of the conventional existence of myself as a person. In fact, according to Tsongkhapa, to expect something more than this proof of our existence is to fall prey to the temptation of reifying existence. Tsongkhapa appears to suggest that although our appreciation of the reality of things and persons does not require proof since it is apparent to us, having knowledge of their nominal existence (tha snyad du yod pa) does require prior cognition of their essential emptiness. And for this, of course, critical reasoning is vital. For unless all traces of intrinsic existence of the object under investigation are deconstructed, the object’s nominal reality cannot be established. There is a sense that the establishment of the nominal nature of things and persons comes only as a by-product of an overall negation of the intrinsic reality of things and persons….This suggests that for Tsongkhapa, at a rational level, conventional existence can only be established through a process that is, in essence, an inference by means of elimination.” Self, Reality and Reason, 161–62.

Though such an eliminatory process is at play in the debate above, the student has been cornered to conclude (reluctantly, it seems) that a merely labeled M doesn’t exist—even conventionally. Tsongkhapa’s statement that “true establishment does not occur in objects” and that “therefore the positing of [objects that appear to be truly existent] as truths is in the perspective of an awareness” has great import here. Because “ignorance” superimposes “on phenomena the existence of their own inherently established entity, whereas they do not have such,” it becomes both possible—and mandatory, especially in this debate—to unconfusedly isolate the merely labeled M from an inherently existent one. See Hopkins, Final Exposition, 110.

[6] Similarly, Lamrimpa asks rhetorically:

When does a kitchen first come into existence? In the architect’s mind there is the idea that there is to be a kitchen, But prior to the actual designation of which room is to be the kitchen, a kitchen is not to be found in any of those rooms. But when you hear the assertion that there is no kitchen in any of these three rooms, you can ask, ‘Wasn’t there a plan for a kitchen?’ Although there was a plan for a kitchen, it is not identifiable among those three rooms. There is no way by looking at these three rooms to identify any one as a kitchen. At that point, if you ask if any of those rooms is a basis of designation for the kitchen, the answer is no. It is said that the designated object and the basis of designation are of the same nature….If the basis of designation were to exist before the designated object came into being, they would not be of the same nature. Even if you fit a particular room out with a refrigerator, stove, and so on, that does not make it a kitchen. For example, it could merely be a storage room. Before there is the designation of a room as a kitchen, no kitchen exists. You may have the original general plan to have a kitchen, a dining room, and a bedroom in your house, but they come into existence only when you designate them as such: This is my kitchen, this is the dining room, and this is the bedroom. From that point on these three rooms do exist. Then it is for the rest of the world to acknowledge their existence. Whether or not the kitchen exists in this case is purely a matter of convention: It is first so designated, then it is accepted as such by others. By stating that something is conceptually designated, this implies an agreement or an assertion.” Realizing Emptiness, 35.

Of course this presentation is immediately transferable to the working letter system called an alphabet and one extract from it, the letter M. The crunch point of the debate between Rinpoche and student therefore appears to be, if we can’t find M on the board, does this somehow mean we can somehow push the evolutionary sequence backwards and find its base of imputation sitting there—already (pre-)constituted as the base of M—on the board? Waiting (physically) outside, beyond the domain of the imputing mind, as it were, to be labeled M? As Lama Zopa Rinpoche has already explained (former post) the Prāsaṅgika do not allow for such an inherent existent thing at any (evolutionary) stage i.e. at all. Put another way, are we to argue for a different ontological status regarding the two—base and label? And if so, on what basis? And just what might it be? Again, according to Prāsaṅgika, as Lama Zopa Rinpoche has just pointed out, both are exactly alike in being merely imputed by thought in dependence on their respective bases and therefore come from the mind (i.e. are only posited through the force of conceptuality) as was illustrated with the letter M. And, just  as a merely imputed M cannot be found to exist objectively, or truly, out there, self- established, in-and-of itself, from its own side, neither can its base. Not even one atom. 




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