Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: 80% of Realizing Emptiness is Identifying the Object of Negation

Preparation 3:  Understanding clearly the object of negation

Before we dive into the actual verses of Shantideva’s explanation of emptiness, I first want to say a few words about the object of negation of emptiness. Gen Tharchin explains that 80% of realizing emptiness is correctly identifying the object of negation. If we know what exactly we are negating, then emptiness is simply the mere absence of that. The non-existence of that. If we do not correctly understand the object of negation, then our understanding of emptiness is merely fabricated and almost certainly wrong. Sometimes we are in a rush to get to the final object of emptiness, but this is a mistake. Instead, we should spend the majority of our time correctly identifying what exactly it is we are negating before we engage in the actual contemplations which dismantle our grasping at the existence of the things we normally see.

Geshe-la explains several different ways of understanding the object of negation. Each one is of course synonymous – there is only one emptiness. But each formulation of the object of negation reveals a different aspect of it that then enables us to better understand what exactly it is we are negating. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to first explain each of these different ways of understanding the object of negation so that when we enter into Shantideva’s explanation, we know what exactly he is talking about. Geshe-la alternatively refers to inherent existence, true existence, existence from its own side, independently existent, and the things we normally see. I will now explain each one in turn.

Inherent existence:  The most common explanation of emptiness in the majority of Geshe-la’s books is the absence of inherent existence. Emptiness is the mere lack of inherent existence.  What exactly is inherent existence?  Inherent existence means that the existence of the object inheres in the object itself. In other words, there is no difference between the object and its basis of imputation. We think the object itself is its basis. The car is the car, the tree is the tree, its existence is inside itself – its existence is itself. When we engage in the traditional meditation as explained in the Meditation Handbook on looking for the body that we normally see, the I that we normally see and so forth, we are looking for where is the object. We say it can be found either as one of its parts, as the collection of its parts, or as separate from its parts. Inherent existence means we can find the object itself inside the object. The key point of the Prasangika view of emptiness is recognizing the distinction between the basis of imputation and the object itself. When we see the imputation as distinct from its basis, we see the lack of inherent existence. When we see the basis of imputation and the object itself as one in the same, then we are grasping at inherent existence.

True existence:  True existence is if the object exists in the way in which it appears. Objects appear to exist from their own side, independent of the mind. It seems as if objects exist “out there” waiting to be observed, and our mind has no role whatsoever in bringing these objects into existence. True existence, therefore, is assenting to this appearance. We conceptually believe that objects do indeed exist in the way that they appear. We do not think that the appearance of objects existing from their own side is incorrect, rather we think it is exactly correct – that is how objects exist. 

Existence from its own side:  existence from its own side means that the object exists on the side of the object itself and not on the side of the mind. Normally we say there are two things: subject and object.  The subject is the person who or mind that knows and the object is what is known. We say I know John. In this example “I” is the subject “John” is the object. How does John exist? When we believe in existence from its own side, we think that John exists on the side of John. We believe that our mind has no role whatsoever in bringing John into existence. Existing on the side of the object and objectively existing are synonymous. In our normal way of talking about things we refer to a subjective perception of something and an objective perception of something. The subjective perception of something is seen to be false and dependent upon the person who is looking at it, whereas an objective perception of things is supposedly neutral and accurate and true for how the object actually exists from its own side. For example, we could say that is objectively good. To say something is objectively anything is to say that its existence is established on the side of the object itself. In truth, nothing is objectively existent, everything is subjectively existent. Believing that there is such a thing as objective existence of anything is ignorance, and the object of negation of emptiness. All of modern science is based on the assumption that we can objectively describe things. Every other discipline nowadays is trying to be more and more like science. Economics, sociology, political science, etc., all of these things are trying to be more science-like and describe things objectively. We often say someone who is objective has a better view than someone who is merely offering their subjective opinion. We even place a value judgment saying objective is better when in fact objective does not even exist.

Independently existent:  Another way of understanding the object of negation is independently existent. Objects exist independent of other things. This is how things appear to us. We think that we exist independently of others. We think others exist independently of us. We think our computer exists independently from our table. The list goes on and on.  To exist independently means to not depend upon other things for being able to come into existence. Everyone knows that a rainbow is a dependent-arising. When water and sunlight come together at a particular angle it creates the appearance of a rainbow. Without the water and without the sunlight, there is no rainbow. We know that the rainbow exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions. Independent existence is thinking that things exist and arise independently of other things. Of course, even superficially thinking about things we recognize that nothing exists independently of anything else, but our ignorance nonetheless innately grasps at things as existing independently of everything else. For example, because we think our self exists independently of others, it makes sense to us to cherish only ourselves and not others. When things happen to other people, we think it does not matter because we believe it is not happening to us. We think this because we think we are independent of others and others are independent of us. In many ways understanding the dependent nature of all phenomena is the easiest way of understanding emptiness. That is why Shantideva spends so much time discussing how objects come into existence.

The things we normally see:  In recent years, Geshe-la has primarily focused on explaining the object of negation of emptiness as “the things we normally see.” In Mirror of Dharma, Geshe-la says everyone knows that emptiness is the lack of inherent existence, but despite having this intellectual understanding our delusions are not changed. We remain just as deluded as before. The object of negation simply is an intellectual abstraction, and not our actual innate ignorance. The phraseology of the things we normally see counters this. What is my self that I normally see? It’s Ryan. The Ryan that I normally see. What is the body that I normally see? It’s my body that I look at and see in the mirror. There is no need to make it more complicated than that. It is simply the body that I normally see. The same is true for cars, our friends, the world, and all other phenomena. Everything that we normally see is the object of negation. None of these things actually exist. Our intellectual mind likes to focus on the words “normally see,” to then re-impute our intellectual understanding of inherent existence. How do things normally appear?  They appear to exist from their own site, they appear to exist inherently, etc. But by doing this, we miss the point of this phraseology and it just winds up being a recreation of our intellectual understanding of emptiness. We need to take these words exactly as they are without extra commentary. What is the object of negation? All the things that we normally see – our computer, our home, our boss, our children, etc., etc., etc. The phraseology of the things I normally see do not exist is also particularly powerful in meditation itself. Even in our mind the world continues to appear. That world that appears inside our mind is the things that we normally see. None of that exists – it is all mere projections, illusions, hallucinations, holograms, and so forth of the mind. When we say the things we normally see do not exist in meditation, then all of these appearances inside of our mind dissolve into the clear light emptiness. We then look out into the clear light and see the mirror lack or the non-existence of all of the things that we normally see. 

One thought on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: 80% of Realizing Emptiness is Identifying the Object of Negation

  1. My kind friend Ryan,
    Many thanks for these teachings on emptiness, they are my theme of reflection during the breaks between my Guru Soumati Buddha Heruka retreat sessions.
    May I always read you on the way.

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