Let us say that none of these things are existent: atoms, individual selves, mind. We also say they are empty – empty of an inherent nature. Gampopa says in the Jewel Ornament:
The two selves or mind could only be said to be nonexistent if they have previously existed and then later ceased to exist. Yet dharmas, which are called ‘the two non-selves’ or ‘mind’ have from the very beginning had no inherent existence, they are beyond the extremes of existence and non-existence.
Never being ‘previously’ existent and not existing ‘from the very beginning’ are expressions of a kind of non-existence that is categorically different to what we normally mean by ‘non-existence’. To put this category I am thinking of in terms (language) I have used before here: it is not that they might, had circumstances been different, have existed, but as it happens, they do not. It is that both existence and non-existence are not even applicable in this context, because it makes no sense.
The King of France does not exist but, had circumstances been different, he might have done. A Trilby hat that invented the lightbulb does not exist, and under no circumstances could it exist. These are two categorically different kinds of existence.
This understanding of neither ‘existent nor non-existent’ seems to put our error regarding self and mind, our delusion, into the same classification as making conceptual (or ‘grammatical’) mistakes, such as thinking that a hat can be a person, or happiness can be yellow. Only metaphor offers a way to given meaning to such things, and only if we can apply a suitable metaphor may they have any sense at all.
One might think that there must be more to delusion and unawareness (avidya, ma rig pa) than that. And surely, that is the case, for we have so many meditative methods for remedying them. But as far as philosophy goes, with its objective being not the ultimate reversal of unawareness, but rather the overcoming of our own basic intellectual doubts and the intellectual defeat of our opponents, this kind of understanding seems quite appropriate. For our delusion here is a conceptual kind of delusion that therefore needs a conceptual remedy. Moreover, even from the meditative point of view, in the madhyamaka search for mind, we investigate the fact of whether or not mind has colour or shape, and whether self is located in the arm or leg, or outside the body. These are precisely the kind of conceptual error that Wittgenstein saw as the root of philosophical delusion.
Freedom from existence and non-existence is not a state of affairs or (ultimate) fact about the universe. Freedom from existence and non-existence is primarily us avoiding making a certain kind of conceptual error. There is more to avidya than this, but this is as far as philosophy goes. The rest is for experience.
The existence and non-existence of selves, minds, atoms, and so on, in this conceptual sense, belong to a certain category of concepts that have dual uses alongside ordinary terms we use every day. Another good example of this is ‘consciousness’. This term has a history of nuanced philosophical usage dating back to Descartes, and has been revived in modern ‘consciousness studies’. This philosophical use of the term is specific to academic and pseudo-academic contexts. It has little or nothing to do with the everyday uses of the term in ordinary contexts. Peter Hacker traces this duality throughout its history, e.g.:
The common or garden notions of self-consciousness, i.e. either being excessively aware of one’s appearance (a usage now lapsed) or being embarrassingly aware that others are looking at one, is nineteenth-century vintage. Being classconscious, money-conscious, or safety-conscious are twentieth century coinage.
Similarly, ‘existence’ in its ordinary contexts is well understood and carries no real philosophical baggage. Conceptually, it is related to concepts such as being able to see, feel and interact with something, being in the world and not being a fantasy or a lie, being something that will affect us for good or for ill. There is a worldly practicality to the existence of myself, my mind, the atoms that make up my body and the world around me that, if I were to deny it, would cause all kinds of worldly problems.
This ordinary use of ‘existence’ is juxtaposed with its parallel philosophical concept, which is related not to worldly practicalities but to the concepts of being ultimate, irreducible, indestructible, fundamental, eternal and so forth. In Buddhist terminology, philosophical or ultimate existence is to do with having inherent nature (svabhava, rang bzhin). Having inherent nature is the opposite of not having it, being empty (shunya, stong pa) of it. To be empty of inherent nature is to be mind-dependent, i.e. to be in a sense a fabrication, that sense being closely related to the application of the basic concepts by which we relate to the world as humans, as agents, and as individuals.
To be free of ultimate existence and non-existence, then, is not to deny conventional existence of objects we daily relate to, nor the non-existence we find in fantasy, delusion and dreams. It is said to be like these. It is certainly to be rid of a certain set of philosophical beliefs. But to be rid of them, one must be able to formulate what they are clearly, or one cannot catch hold of them to see them for what they are.
When we say self, mind and atoms are not existent, it is not that we deny a certain worldly practicality in using such terms and treating them as real – “I myself will go to the shops”, “I did indeed change my mind about going”, “I lost consciousness”, and so forth. I might stop here and say, “it is not non-existent, because it appears”. But this is a truism, hardly an insight of any kind. Of course they are not non-existent in the sense that they appear, nobody sane person would deny it. They are not non-existent in a deeper sense that incorporates a conceptual insight: that having first asserted their non-existence in a philosophical or ultimate sense, we now understand that non-existence as something that is not so much a true fact about them as something that could never have happened because it made no sense.
What we deny is that self, mind, atoms and so forth have a parallel or additional sense in which they can be thought of as eternal, indestructible, ultimately mind, ultimately matter, ultimately whatever, however we construe those things, e.g. in terms of heaven, hell, materialism, dualism or what have you. And when we say that self, mind and consciousness do not exist in that way, and that ‘from the very beginning’ they have not existed like that, it is not we mean that they might have been like that, had the universe been arrange differently. Rather, what we mean is that, if we analyse carefully the nature of these ‘ultimates’, whatever they are, we will find that the error of thinking they were ultimate was not even a possibility. The scenario did not even make sense as something that might have, or might in future, come about.