The Great Madhyamaka

Some say that while the analysis of emptiness shows that appearances lack inherent nature (svabhava), they arise in union with emptiness, for without this one would have the extreme of annihilationism. Therefore, because empty appearances arise, one’s view is neither existence or nonexistence, which is the middle way, Madhyamaka. For example:

“If one examines from the side of appearances,

Because nothing at all is non-empty,

One can say simply that everything is “non-existent”,

But that nonexistence is not self-sufficient,

For it arises unobstructedly as appearance.

This is not the Madhyamaka view. In Madhyamaka, one first understands the nonexistence of objects as an antidote to grasping at their existence. One then abandons grasping at their nonexistence and remains in pacification, as Santideva has explained:

By meditating on the imprints of emptiness,

The imprints of reality will be abandoned.

By meditating it is nothing whatsoever,

That, too, will then be abandoned,

For when one thinks, ‘It does not exist’,

There is no conception of an analysandum.

Then, its unreality has lost its basis,

So how can it remain before the conceptual mind?

When neither existence nor nonexistence

Remain before the mind,

Since there is no other category at that time,

There is a complete non-conceptual pacification.

In this view, one avoids annihilationism by not asserting any position whatsoever. There is no claim here that empty appearances arise.

It is an error to imagine you can avoid nihilism by asserting empty appearances. When the emptiness of appearances is understood, appearances do not exist, and nor do they arise, for arising and existence mutually entail one another. There is no ’empty’ appearance, ’empty’ awareness or ‘luminosity’ left over after analysis to help avoid universal non-existence. If something is left over after analysis, such as a flow of empty appearances or awareness, one should analyze that too.

For example, if one analyzes the physical body to see if it is exists, one find is does not exist. One does not then say ‘the empty body arises’. One says it does not exist. Furthermore, if an empty appearance arose, its arising would have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and so on. On analysis it is clear that no empty appearance ever arises.

The point that appearances do not have ultimate arising is a fundamental necessity of their emptiness and the very intent of the Madhyamaka analysis.  Any ‘arising’ of an appearance is not ultimate, but a relative truth – in short, empty.  What then is left that differentiates ’empty appearances’ from an assertion of universal non-existence?

If appearances arise, that is delusion, even if you have understood them intellectually to be empty to some degree. If you think there could be an appearance without there also being deluded conceptual discrimination, try to describe what this appearance could be. If it had a colour, such a red, that would be a conceptual discrimination. If it had a shape, such as round or square, that would be a conceptual discrimination. And so on for the qualities of sound, smell, taste and touch. Can there be an appearance that has no form, sound, smell, taste or touch?  There is no such appearance, that is an absurdity. But if it has any of these, it is not empty. When the deluded perceptions of the five senses are no longer arising, there is no appearance, only the inconceivable dharmadhatu, and this is truly what Acarya Sonam Tsemo calls ‘the wisdom which is without appearances’. Therefore to say ‘appearances arise unobstructedly’ refers not to a state of wisdom, but of delusion.

You would like to avoid philosophical nihilism by saying, ‘yet we see there are mere appearances constantly arising’. Here you assert merely the fact of your own delusion (‘I see appearances arise’) and something which previously you denied – that self and appearances exist – which contradicts you own claims about the emptiness of subject and object, of appearances and of the individual self. You respond, ‘This awareness is inexpressible, but I know it from my own experience.’ If it is inexpressible and known only by you, why do you go on to describe it to others and make it the foundation of your solipsistic philosophy? This view is hardly Madhyamaka. Please look at the Heart Sutra which clearly states again and again that appearances do not arise. If you still wish to assert that appearances arise, please consider that this is not the position of the Buddha in the Heart Sutra.

You say that empty appearances are constantly arising without subject and object and this ‘flow’ is not existent or non-existent. The problem, you say, is that we ‘reify’ this flow – project a reality onto a basis which itself is empty of subject and object. You say once we stop ‘reifying’ this basis, or flow, there will still be empty appearances, only now they won’t be ‘reified’ and everything will be fine. You perhaps say this basis or flow is also ‘luminous’.

The idea that there is an existent mental basis of samsara, empty of subject and object, is the provisional mind-only view, not the definitive middle way. The Madhyamaka analysis refutes this idea. It shows reification does not depend upon appearances, rather appearances depend on reification (i.e. grasping). Reification, or grasping, cannot depend on an object, for this would require that the object had been brought into existence prior to the reification. What power, other than reification/grasping, can bring objects into existence?

You might say that Santideva himself says we do not negate the mere cognitions of seeing and hearing (9.25):

“Cognitions of seeing and hearing
Are not the objects of negation here.
Here we are preventing
The cause of suffering – their discrimination as real.”

This does not mean we accept they exist in the ultimate sense. Please refer to the clear explanation of these lines by the Acharya Sonam Tsemo, who clarifies that while we do not negate seeing and hearing in conventional truth, we do indeed negate them in ultimate truth. For as Santideva goes on to say (in 9.26):

“If they were real, they would be other than mind but,
If they are not other, they cannot be real.”

You may point out that Acharya Chandrakirti has asserted the existence of the ‘mere relative’ in distinction to ‘relative truth’, which is the perceptual object of aryas who have realization of the path. While he did make this distinction, he asserted that the mere relative does not belong to the ultimate and is a delusion which aryas do not reject merely while they are on the path. The ‘mere relative’ does not exist ultimately and cannot differentiate your view from an embrace of nihilism. According to Acharya Chandrakirti, the ‘mere relative’ does not exist for buddhas.

You might say these mere appearances are nothing but dependent origination, empty of subject and object, and hence your position is not universal non-existence or mind-only. This position is indeed a profound view, and may be called the ordinary Middle Way, as distinct from the Great Madhyamaka. It is the view, for example, expressed in the Madhyantavibhanga of Maitreya:

“The false imagination exists.
In it, duality does not exist.
Emptiness exists here,
And within it, that [false imagination] exists as well.”

Likewise the explication of emptiness and dependent origination by Arya Nagarjuna in such treatises as the Mulamadhyamakakarika is equivalent to this view. It is the view that shows the emptiness of subject and object without showing the emptiness of their basis, which is called ‘the dependent nature’ or ‘dependent origination’. While some philosophers have taken such a view as definitive, it is provisional, precisely because it does not show that whatever basis is left over after one has asserted the emptiness of subject and object is itself empty.

It is in the Dharmadharmata-vibangha and the Uttaratantra-shastra that the Jina Maitreya taught the definitive meaning of the Great Madhyamaka, and in the two ‘praises’ such as In Praise of the Dharmadhatu that the definitive meaning was set out by Arya Nagarjuna. In the definitive meaning of the Great Madhyamaka, mere appearances, deluded awareness and dependent origination itself are not resistant remnants of analysis, are not non-empty or even in ‘union’ with emptiness, but are subject to analysis and found to be empty. As Sonam Tsemo says, (p. 441)

“An ultimate intrinsic nature is the logical subject. It is not a dependent origination, because it is illogical for an existent or non-existent effect to arise. This refutation of the ultimate intrinsic nature as a dependent origination establishes that dependent origination is not… an ultimate intrinsic nature and is… a relative delusion.”

Though the analysis that appearances are dependent originations is a profound tenet of the ordinary Madhyamaka tradition, dependent origination and empty appearances in the Great Madhyamaka tradition of Arya Nagarjuna and the Jina Maitreya must themselves be acknowledged as non-existent and hence cannot differentiate one’s view from an assertion of universal non-existence.

Rather, the Great Madhyamaka is free from universal non-existence because while all objects, subjects, appearance and awarenesses are empty, and while dependent origination itself is also empty, what remains after this analysis is the inconceivable Buddha kayas, wisdoms, qualities and activities which, being beyond the grasp of conceptual cognition, are not subject to the analysis of emptiness and hence are not empty.

These kayas, wisdoms are so forth are what is properly intended by the term ‘luminous’. It refers to the pure, primordial nature of all buddhas. It does not refer to any mode of dualistic appearances or dualistic cognition that remains after an analyst has found the gross emptiness of subject and object. Whatever appearances and cognitions remain after analysis, no matter how subtle, are subject to further analysis and will be found to be empty. Luminosity is not a subtle quality of samsaric appearances discovered by subtle logical analysis, but is completely inconceivable to the ordinary mind and inaccessible by any analytic cognition. If inconceivable, why is it taught to ordinary beings? This was of course explained by the Jina Maitreya in the Uttaratanta-sastra and elaborated by Karmapa Mikyo Dorje: the teaching has been explained in order to overcome the five faults.

Thus, to avoid the assertion of universal non-existence, someone who asserts emptiness must only look to dependent origination or appearances empty of subject and object as provisional truth for, in the final analysis, all that is conceived by the conceptual mind must be recognized as empty.  This is the intention of the Heart Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom and the so-called ‘Second Turning’. Universal non-existence cannot then be avoided unless one finally asserts that the emptiness of all dharmas is in an inseparable union with that which is not empty and which withstands analysis, called luminosity, awareness, or buddha nature, taught by the Buddha in the sutras of the Third Turning and in the tantras.

Not existent or non-existent

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.

The Logic of Origination

The prasangika method is to take the philosophical position of an opponent and show that it leads to a contradiction or absurdity. In the case of the vajra slivers argument, presented for example in Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara, the position that things arise in one of four possible ways, each corresponding to certain non-Buddhist philosophical schools, is shown to be impossible.

Being led to a conclusion or consequence (prasanga) is a logical process, as opposed to an empirical or factual one.  One is swept along by the unrelenting force of logical compulsion or necessity without recourse to any facts.  For example, the idea that things originate from themselves is said to lead to the absurdity that seeds and shoots would be the same, as would food and excrement (Shantideva).  Because these outcomes are obviously absurd, the premises are also absurd. This is not a discovery of new knowledge or facts, but a recognition of something that was not fully understood before, when the consequences were not yet worked out.  The identity of seeds and shoots, and of food and excrement, are excluded from language as a matter of what Wittgenstein referred to as ‘grammar’, which in his case means something closer to ‘the semantics of English language’ than what we normally mean by ‘grammar’.  Because these identities are excluded, self arising from self is also excluded.  This is how the philosophical method of prasangika works.

Yet, we do not exclude a ‘self-made man’ from language, so there are cases which, on the face it, in some sense of ‘self-created’ or ‘self arising’, appear to be selves arising from themselves.  For the prasangika, these must be different cases of self-arising to the absurd ones.  What this shows is that ‘self-arising’ is not clear in meaning; it is related to both legitimate and illegitimate cases.  The philosopher then says, “I am only interested in the illegitimate cases: this is the kind of ‘self arising’ which leads to reduction ad absurdum.”  But then we can no longer say anything about the general case, ‘arising from itself’.  We can only exclude the specific cases–food as excrement, and so on. But these are obvious, and trivial. So the idea of consequence from a general case does not apply.   

It is the same with the absurd situations (prasangas) which are presented as consequences of ‘origination from other’.  There are obviously illegitimate cases, such as darkness from flames, or water from fire, which are given.  There are obviously legitimate cases as well, such as barley shoots and barley seeds, not to mention striking a match, in which light arises from something which was not itself light.   These seem to be examples of ‘origination from other’ too.  If we cannot specify in general terms which are the illegitimate cases except by listing them, we cannot draw any general conclusions about other-origination at all.  

It might be argued–using general terms–that cause ‘necessarily’ ceases before the effect because cause and effect cannot co-exist (necessarily). Here, ‘other-origination’ is stipulated in general terms to be simultaneous cause and effect only: no other kind of other-origination is of concern.  But this is not a consequence (prasanga) of anything and nor does it lead to any consequence.  It is the stipulation of a rule: nothing counts as simultaneous cause and effect.  Now this rule may or may not be accepted as part of the English language; and probably, it is too unclear to be followed as a genuine linguistic rule.  But even if it were accepted, we would not have acquired any new knowledge.  We would only have ruled out a certain way of talking. And so, that is just what the prasangika does. In insisting that certain claims result in contradiction, he rules out certain ways of talking – specifically, certain philosophical or metaphysical ones.

Necessity and Metaphysics

‘Necessary truths’ are (or are internally related to) rules of representation and reasoning, which form the network of concepts and transitions between concepts and propositions in terms of which we describe how things are.  Although we present them to ourselves as truths, and although we conceive of them as necessarily true and think of them as describing objectively necessary facts, they are not descriptions at all, but expressions of rules for forming descriptions.  They are forms of representation.

G.P Baker and P.M.S Hacker, ‘Grammar and Necessity’, in Wittgenstein: Rules, Grammar and Necessity, p. 320

Here we have a nice encapsulation of Wittgenstein’s important insight into the nature of necessity, an insight that goes to the heart of what philosophy is.  Already in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was claiming the only kind of necessity that existed is logical necessity:

A necessity for one thing to happen because another has happened does not exist. There is only logical necessity.

That is, whenever we describe something as necessary, though we may not be aware of it, we are describing a logical connection.  For example, say we contend that a fruit cake necessarily contains raisins, that without raisins, it cannot count as a fruitcake.  This is asserting a logical or conceptual relationship, not an empirical one.  We are defining what a fruitcake is.  Necessity and logic go hand in hand in this way.  What about if we say that in order to get to the job interview on time, you must (necessarily) catch the 9.20 from Paddington station?  Is this a conceptual/logical or an empirical connection? Are there really no circumstances at all under which you could miss this train but still make your appointment?  Might you not, for example, call them up and let them know you will be late?  Might there not after all be a bus that gets you there on time?  Whenever the ‘must’ is not iron-clad, it is an empirical, not a logical, proposition.

Saying necessary connections are logical is, on Wittgenstein’s view, a tautology, for these two terms mean the same. The necessary/contingent distinction is exactly the same as the logical/empirical distinction. He does not eradicate the distinction, as Quine tried to do. Contingent truths are true, but might have been false. Necessary truths could not have been otherwise. Their falsity makes no sense. This means it is excluded from empirical discourse.  It has no use.

But there are nuances among necessary/logical truths. There are necessary propositions/necessary truths which belong to the domain of logic, such as the law of the excluded middle (P v ~P), the law of non-contradiction (~(P & ~P)), and other laws (e.g. if all F’s are G, and x is F, then x is G). Their common element is that they are all tautologies.  It is the recognition of these as tautologies that consigns them to the domain of logic. They are not descriptions of any state of affairs; they say nothing about the world–they are unconditionally true. They are not meaningless however: they are tautologies.  They can be employed in reasoning and the establishment of proofs or contradictions.  That is their purpose.  That is their use, which is, for Wittgenstein, the chief determinant of meaning.

Arithmetical propositions are similar in that they are not descriptions of the world, nor indeed of a mathematical reality, and say nothing.  They are not useless however.  They license the transformation of empirical propositions.  For example, because it is (necessarily) true that 2 + 2 =4, we are entitled to go from ‘I had two apples and I bought two more’ to ‘I have four apples’.  Empirical claims such as this are, of course, contingent; I might have eaten one of the apples.  Indeed in any applied example that involves counting or arithmetic, the arrival at the correct answer (e.g. 4 apples) is never inevitable.  It is not ‘in the nature of things’, as Frege thought, that if we start with two things then add two more things we will inevitably have four things.  There is no such inevitability unless we explicitly say so by our knowledge that nothing else was added, or we apply a ceteris paribus clause.  Arithmetical claims are different; they are necessary.  This is not because arithmetic is in the nature of things, but because we reserve arithmetic from falsification.  Nothing could show 2 + 2 is not 4.  This is a social practice, but that does not mean arithmetic is true by convention, or true because we say it is.  We do not make arithmetic true.  Nothing makes it true.  It is unconditionally true.  As before, their meaning is closely related to their use–which is only in connection to empirical propositions.  If they have no use in this regard, they are like the rules of a theoretical game nobody ever plays.

Then there are what Wittgenstein called ‘grammatical’ propositions which specify other rules for the use of words. For example, ‘red is a colour’ is a grammatical proposition that specifies a rule for the use of the words ‘red’ and ‘colour’.  These cause trouble in philosophy because they can look similar to empirical claims; in fact, out of context, they can look indistinguishable from empirical claims.  For example, ‘This (pointing to an object) is red’. In one case, this might be an ostensive definition of red: teaching the meaning of ‘red’ to someone by pointing at a sample object.  On another occasion, it might be an empirical claim: ‘This car is red.  It was supposed to be green.’  One is definitional, conceptual, unconditional, i.e. necessary.  To deny it is to say nothing about the world; it is only to dispute the validity of employing a sign for a certain concept.  The latter usage is factual, empirical, falsifiable, i.e. contingent.

Logic, mathematics, grammar: these are rules for the use of language and constitute forms of representation.  We sometimes call them true, and this is one way in which philosophers sometimes get into trouble and fail to clearly understand their difference from empirical propositions.  Empirical propositions are true or false.  Logic, mathematics and grammar are not the same.  For them to be ‘true’ is just to be a rule, to be accepted as something one has to be in accord with in order to make sense, to be understood.  To be false is to be nothing, not even a rule.  In chess, there is are rules for the movement of each piece. Moves that do not accord with these are simply not part of chess.  So although we might say 2 + 2 = 4 is true, and 2 + 2 = 5 is false, these should not be understood as descriptions of any kind of reality, but just as statements of rules that ought to be followed, like ‘(it is true that) the bishop moves diagonally’.

Outside of these three kinds of rules or necessary truths, there are some propositions which are somewhere between the empirical and the necessary, and these are dealt with in Wittgenstein’s late paper, On Certainty.  ‘The world is billions of years old’, ‘water is H2O’.  These are examples of proposed rules which have come to be accepted as rules.  ‘Water is H2O’ is a rule that partially determine the meanings of the constituent terms.  Such examples are cases of empirical propositions that have hardened into rules.  Our forms of representation can in this sense change over time.  Rules can be thrown out, and new ones adopted.

Philosophers have certainly spent ages pondering the metaphysics of the domain of logic and mathematics.  Do numbers exist?  Are there objects corresponding to the logical constants?  The metaphysics of grammatical truths have also been rife in philosophy.  Does ‘redness’ exist?  Is the fact that red is a colour a ‘law’ of some special kind?  Wittgenstein’s correlation of necessary, logical and conceptual truths sweeps away metaphysics as a mythology resulting from treating some necessary truths as a special kind of super-hard contingent truth.  In a quite ordinary or common sense, red things exist, and the concept of red exists, but apart from this, asking whether ‘red’ or ‘redness’ exists is meaningless.  It is like asking whether Mozart’s music smells.  You can say ‘no’, but it is clearer to say there is no meaning to the question; that nothing counts as music with an odour.

On this account, the medieval debate in Tibetan philosophy concerning the ontological status of universals–which corresponds closely to the medieval Western debate on nominalism and conceptualism–is confused.  The only kind of necessity is logical or conceptual necessity.  The only point of logical and conceptual truths is their use in providing rules for the use of empirical propositions.  They are not descriptions of anything.  This is a sweeping away of metaphysics.

Everything empirical is contingent.  It is is logical feature of the empirical domain that everything might have been otherwise.  This insight itself is logical; it is a rule to clarify the proper employment of ’empirical’ and ‘contingent’.  The casualty of this conclusion is metaphysics: nothing counts as a description of a non-empirical or ultimate reality.   This is the insight that has important ramifications for traditional madhyamaka philosophy.  Our understanding of emptiness, buddha nature, the kayas and wisdom, and all the ontology of Buddhist philosophy, will be misunderstood if thought of as metaphysical in nature, as a super-reality.




On not finding the mind’s colour

It is a very important point of many teachings that, though we might look for mind, we cannot find it.  Milarepa sang in The Root Verses Illuminating Primordial Wisdom of Mahamudra,

It is the thought of the buddhas and mind of sentient beings.

It is without colour, form, centre or periphery.

It is free from bias in any direction.

It cannot be experienced as existent or non-existent.

(rje brtsun mi la’i phyag rgya chen po ye shes gsal byed kyi rtsa ba, gdams ngag mdzod, vol 7, pp.66-67, trans. Lama Jampa Thaye 1990)

And of course this kind of presentation of the view is stated in many places not unique to the Kagyu lamas.  The particular observation I want to make here concerns the freedom of mind – or, here, the basis mahamudra, which is the same thing – from colour and form.  I want to apply to this a very insightful point made by Wittgenstein on the nature of meaning, which leads to two ways this might be understood.

Is it that in some circumstances other than those in which we find ourselves, it could have been the case that mind has a colour, or a shape?   But, as it happens, under the actual circumstances, mind does not happen to have either.  Is it, in other words, a contingent fact that mind is not coloured or shaped, a fact which could be altered under the right circumstances?

Now this is surely not what is meant when we say that mind does not have a colour or shape.  We mean that it is in some sense impossible for mind to have a colour or shape, that such a thing is necessarily ruled out, even absurd.  It is essential to mind that it has no colour or shape.  There is no such thing as a mind with a colour, or a shape.

Here is the point.  If there is no such thing as mind having a colour or shape, there is no kind of search or empirical investigation that could discover or learn this knowledge about mind.  If it is true that mind has no colour or shape, I already know this about mind.  Such knowledge is like the bedrock along which a river must run.  Or it is like a rule one must not violate if one wishes to make sense.  It is not a contingent fact about the world or the nature of mind.  It is not so much false to say that mind is red, or cubic, as it is wrong.  It is wrong to say that, because we can find no meaning or usefulness in making such a statement.

This is like the difference between the false claim, ‘my eyes are blue’ and the claim ‘my eyes are loud’.  Checking the colour of my eyes involves looking, but there is nowhere to look to check whether they are loud or quiet.  I do not have to look or search to know they cannot be either.  Similarly, what kind of looking can one do to check whether or not mind has a colour or shape?

One can search for a poetic or metaphorical meaning to a statement like ‘her eyes were loud’, but mind’s not having colour or shape is not a poetic device.

It is simply not possible to look for the colour of mind like one looks for the colour of someone’s eyes.  This is not because we lack some kind of ability which a super-being might have.  It is that nothing counts as looking or checking for mind’s colour or shape.

There is an important caveat to this.  We might create or invent an activity, and call it ‘looking at my mind’.  We might sit cross-legged and engage in introspection.  We might ask ourselves, ‘Is my mind red?  Is it round?’  We might think, ‘I do not see that my mind is red.  It is not round, either.”  We might then call this activity ‘looking at the mind’.

In doing so, we do not learn anything we did not previously know about mind.  We do create a sense for the expression  ‘seeing my mind is not red’.  But this is nothing like seeing my eyes are not red, or that the ink is not red, social institutions far more grounded in human realities.

My conclusion is – the act of looking for mind is not something we should assume we know how to do.  There is no reason to assume it has anything much in common with what we normally mean by looking, checking, searching for things with colours and shapes.