Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Avoiding the Extreme of Nihilism

(9.7d) (Proponent of things) “Then it is incorrect to say that things exist even conventionally.”

(9.8) No, there is no fault, because things exist by conventional valid cognizers.
From the point of view of worldly people, seeing things is seeing reality;
But worldly people never actually see reality
Because the real nature of things is their emptiness.

Throughout Shantideva’s guide, there are a series of debates between the different philosophical schools. To indicate the views of the Prasangikas, Shantideva puts in italics the views that he is refuting.  Since it is not always obvious which school of thought the different parts in italics refer to, I will indicate in parentheses which school of thought the particular doubt comes from. In this context, the last line of verse 7 represents the views of the proponents of things.

As we go through the debates in Shantideva’s guide, we can sometimes feel tempted to just jump straight to the Prasangikas refutation because we know that is the final view that we are after. This is a big mistake. The debates between the Prasangikas and the other schools of thought only have power to move our mind if we first realize how we ourselves have the same doubt or objection that the other schools of thought are raising.  Each time we see italics in Shantideva’s guide, we should first spend some time to generate and identify how we ourselves have the different doubts or objections referred to by the lower schools. We almost need to first convince ourselves of the doubt of the other view, thinking, “yeah, that’s right.”  Only when we actually think in the way that the other schools think will Shantideva’s dismantling of that view move our mind. If we fail to realize how we ourselves are still holders of the views of the lower schools, Shantideva’s refutations will not function to move our mind.  But if we first identify how we are holders of these other views, then Shantideva’s refutation will actually move our mind and change our mind. We will realize, “oh yeah, I see, I was wrong.”  In this way, going through the debates itself is a method for arriving at the correct view of emptiness. We gradually chip away at all of our wrong understandings until we are left with the correct view of the Prasangikas.

Here, the objection of the proponents of things is that if things do not truly exist then they do not exist at all. This is known as the extreme of non-existence. They say if things are only mere appearances to mind, like in a dream, then nothing is real and nothing exists. If nothing exists, then nothing exists conventionally either. Nothing exists at all. We fall into the extreme of nihilism.  In truth, we all think this way.  For example, when a child has a nightmare, we say don’t worry it’s not real, it does not exist. Whereas we think that if a monster was actually in the child’s room, then it would exist, it would be real, and therefore it would be appropriate to be afraid. If we are saying that the monster in the room is also just a mere appearance to mind, not real, then why should we fear it?  But if we do not fear it, it will eat us and harm us. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to be afraid. Similarly, we think if the things we normally see do not exist at all then why bother generating compassion for others who appear to be suffering. They are not really suffering. There is no one there suffering at all. So why care?  

So how do we answer this doubt?  Geshe-la once said, ‘that which is conceived by ignorance, we believe to be the truth.’  In other words, things appear to us to exist independent of mind, and we assent to that appearance as if it were true, objectively true.  For example, somebody who is paranoid will project a world full of threats, and the person relates to these appearances as if they were objectively true.  They do not even put into question whether they are just projections of their mind because these appearances appear so vividly.  We are exactly the same.  This whole world is appearing to us and it appears as if we have nothing to do with its creation.  It is there functioning on its own and we are just observing what is taking place.

Geshe-la has said many times, ‘the things we normally see do not exist at all.’  This is because what we normally see are inherently existent things.  These things do not exist at all.  It is worth walking around the town repeating this like a mantra to gain some experience of it.

To understand the Prasangika view, it is worth it to understand a little more clearly what is meant by illusion-like things.  With respect to an illusion, it looks like there is something, but there is not actually.  What appears to be, does not actually exist.  It just appears that way.  So too it is with all things.  It looks like there is a table, for example, but there is not actually one there.  The table does not actually exist, it just appears to.  It appears that way.  When certain causes and conditions are assembled together, it creates an illusion-like appearance of something actually being there, like a rainbow or a Mexican salad.  Everything is like this, illusion-like effects from the assemblage of causes and conditions.  When we assent to that appearance, and engage in actions on that basis, we plant contaminated karma on our mind which ripens later as the appearance of objects that exist from their own side.  Thus, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.

So how do things exist? They exist by convention. We all agree to call something the same thing if it has the same nature, aspect, and function. For example, something that is made of metal, has four wheels and an engine, and functions to take us places, we all agree by convention to call it a car. It’s “carness” does not exist on the side of the car, rather conventionally everyone agrees to call that thing a car. If last night we dreamt of a car, it does not exist as anything more than a mere appearance to our mind, but it still can function to take us from one dream place to another dream place. It functions within the dream. In exactly the same way the car of our waking state is a mere projection of our mind, a label we impute upon a collection of wheels and an engine, but it still functions to take us from one place to another.  Both of the places that it is taking us to and from are likewise just mere appearances to our mind as is the car that takes us between them. But the places still accomplish the function of being a place and the car still accomplishes the function of taking us to places, therefore even though these things do not exist as anything more than mere imputation to our mind, they still function and exist conventionally.

Here Geshe-la introduces the term “conventional valid cognizer.”  A cognizer is a mind that knows an object. A valid cognizer is a mind that knows something correctly.  A conventional valid cognizer is a mind that knows something correctly according to convention. For example, if I call a tennis racquet a spaghetti strainer, that is not a conventional valid cognizer.  But if I call a tennis racket a tennis racket and a spaghetti strainer a spaghetti strainer, then my mind has conventional valid cognizers.  

But it is useful to recall the first verse of Chapter 9 in which it said that conventional appearances are mistaken appearances. We might wonder how it is possible for a conventional valid cognizer to be a valid cognizer yet at the same time a mistaken appearance. It is a mistaken appearance in the sense that the way in which it exists does not correspond with the way that it appears. But it is still a conventional valid cognizer in the sense that conventionally we all agree this is a car. According to worldly people that is a car, and Prasangikas have no disagreement with worldly people.

But this then raises the question of do Buddhas see the car?  If the car is a mistaken appearance and Buddhas only know truth, how can they possibly know the car?  The answer is when a Buddha sees a car, what they are actually seeing is emptiness appearing in the aspect of a car. The car that a Buddha sees is emptiness appearing as car. The car that we normally see is a conventional valid cognizer, a conventional appearance, but a mistaken appearance. The car that we normally see does not exist at all. It still continues to function in our non-existent world that we inhabit, but it doesn’t actually exist at all. The car that a Buddha sees does exist, but it exists as a manifestation of emptiness. And it still functions in an all-empty world.

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