Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: What Exactly are Mere Appearances to Mind?

(9.5) When you proponents of things see things,
You do not recognize their illusion-like character
But assert them to be inherently existent.
This is where we Madhyamika-Prasangikas disagree with you.

In our earlier preparations for this chapter, I offered a series of analogies to help us understand the correct view of emptiness. One of those analogies is that all things are like an illusion. What do all illusions have in common? They appear in one way but they exist in another. For example, the illusory tiger appears to the audience to be an actual tiger, but in fact it is just an illusion created by the magician. There is no tiger actually there. Inherent existence and true existence are synonymous. True existence says that objects exist in the way that they appear. Prasangikas refute true existence. They say objects do not exist in the way that they appear. Objects appear to exist from their own side independent of the mind, whereas in fact objects are mere projections created by the mind, like in a dream. In this sense, they do not exist in the way that they appear and are therefore like illusions. All proponents of things believe objects do truly exist. This is the fundamental difference between the Prasangikas and all of the other philosophical schools.

(9.6) Forms that we see directly are just mere appearance to mind.
They exist falsely because the way they appear
Does not correspond to the way they exist,
Just as a human body is conventionally accepted as clean when in reality it is impure.

‘True’ in a Dharma context means to exist in the way it appears.  Truly existent means to exist in the way that it appears. Things appear to exist from their own side, but they do not exist that way, so they are falsely existent.  In reality, there is nothing other than the mere appearance of mind.

What is a mere appearance to mind? An appearance to mind means something that appears to our mind. For example, there are objects that appear to our eyes, objects that appear to our ears, and so forth.  There are also objects that appear to our mind, for example remembering the face of our mother. Normally we think there is a big difference between objects that appear to our senses and objects that appear to our mind. We understand that the objects that appear to our mind are simply mental projections, but we believe that the objects that appear to our senses actually exist out there independent of our mind. Shantideva is saying that all objects are equally appearances to mind. The memory of our mother and the car that we see with our eyes are equally just mere appearances to mind.  There is no difference in their fundamental nature. Mere in this context means that there is nothing to objects that is somehow more than just an appearance to mind.  Mere here means that the objects we perceive are nothing more than a simple appearance to mind. If we look for something that exists behind the appearance or something that the appearance refers to, we find nothing.

(9.7abc) Buddha taught the impermanence of things
To lead people gradually to a realization of emptiness –
The lack of inherent existence of things.

How does impermanence lead us to a realization of emptiness? Impermanence means that all things are constantly changing. They are all temporary in their existence.  To be permanent means to not change.  It means to never change. Something that is permanent never changes. When we look at objects, we typically are grasping at two different things. First, we grasp at the objects as being permanent, in other words unchanging. And second, we grasp at those things as existing from their own side.  For example, when we look at a car, we might say that is the same car that I have had for the last 10 years. As if the car has not changed at all. It is permanent. If we think about it, we of course recognize that the car has changed a lot over the years.  We may have changed the tires, changed the brakes, and so forth. But in our mind, we still think it is the same car. This thinking it is the same car is our grasping at the permanence of the car.

When we grasp at the inherent existence of the car, we think that the car exists independently of all other phenomena.  It exist out there, inside the car somewhere. For something to exist independently, it must also be permanent. If something changes, then it does not exist independently because it has to come into contact with causes and conditions which cause the object to change.  In this way, we can see that permanence is actually an aspect of inherent existence.  It is somewhat easy to understand how things are impermanent or changing. It is more difficult to understand how things lack inherent existence. For this reason, Buddha taught that objects are impermanent to weaken or to cut away at our overall grasping at things existing inherently.

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