Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: There is Nothing There Behind the Label

(9.27cd) (Chittamatrin) “Samsara, like all imputed objects, must have something substantial as its basis;
Otherwise, it would be completely empty, just like space.”

Here, the Chittamatrins make the argument that all of us tend to think before we start studying the Dharma. When we hear Buddhists say everything is empty, we take it to mean that nothing exists at all. If there is not something there that the object refers to or there isn’t an object there, then nothing exists at all and we fall into the extreme of nihilism or nothingness. Therefore, the Chittmatrins say there must be something substantial as the basis of samsara otherwise it doesn’t exist at all. Once again it is very important for us to identify how we ourselves hold onto the doubts and objections raised by the other philosophical schools. It is only when we identify these views within our own mind that the Prasangika refutation functions to dismantle our own ignorance.

(9.28) If imputed phenomena, such as samsara, had truly existent bases,
How could you ever become bound in samsara and how could you ever escape from it?
According to you, mind cannot be an apprehender related to something it apprehends;
Rather, it must be an isolated cognition of itself.

(9.29) If the mind exists inherently, or independently,
Then it is already free from all defilements,
And it follows that all living beings are already enlightened!
So what is the point of teaching that everything is just the nature of mind?

All of this is quite technical, so I will try to simplify it to the main points.

All schools, below Madhyamika-Prasangika would say there is a basis in which the object can be found to exist.  The different schools say they can find it in different parts of the basis.  Some say it is in the body, some say it is in the mind, some say it is in the consciousness, and some say it is in a part of the consciousness called the ‘conciousness basis of all.’  But all of these views are the same in that they think there is something actually there from its own side that is something more than mere karmic appearance of mind.  They argue there must be something, otherwise there is nothing, which is not possible.

Only the Prasangikas say there is nothing there in the basis where the object can be found.  They make a distinction between the basis of imputation and the imputation itself.  The lower schools say the object is one with its basis (this would be an inherently existent thing), the Prasangikas make a distinction between the two.  The extreme of non-existence says if things do not exist inherently, they do not exist at all.  The Prasangikas say things exist as mere imputation that function.  A Mexican salad does not exist from its own side, but it still functions to give us a good lunch.  A car does not exist from its own side, but it still functions to take us around town.  If you search for something more than the appearance of a microphone, you will find nothing.  But the appearance still accomplishes an illusion-like function in this illusory world.  Ordinary appearance is it ‘looks like something is there, outside of the mind.’  But for the Prasangikas, other than the appearance of the microphone, there is no microphone.  We then use this appearance to remind us that there is in fact nothing there.  The more it appears, the more it reminds us, and so our understanding deepens. 

In fact, the Prasangikas turn the debate by saying if samsara did exist from its own side, how could you ever become enmeshed in it, and if you were within it, how could you ever escape from it?  It is only by embracing the Prasangika view that liberation becomes possible.

All this discussion of self-cognizers is important for the following reason.  Something can only be established to exist if it is known by mind.  All the schools agree with this.  So the question the Prasangikas pose to the Chittamatrins is ‘what knows mind, how do you establish the mind itself.’  The Chittmatrins say there is part of the mind which knows itself – a self-cognizer, and it is this that exists from its own side.  The Prasangikas say a mind cannot know itself for the same reason a blade cannot cut itself.    

This is not an academic debate, but has very important implications for our Mahamudra meditations where we take as the main object of our meditation the mind itself.  If the mind cannot know itself, how can we meditate on our mind itself?  For our Mahamudra meditations to be successful, we need to find the right object, so getting this right is very important.

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