Jack Dawkins wrote:
I'm new here... I posted this on another forum and got some interesting responses, mostly from Theravadins, along the lines that I was asking the wrong question. On reflection I am still interested in my question so I am posting it here, where folks might be more receptive to Madhyamika generally.
The original post was as follows "I am looking for Madhyamika arguments in defence of the claim that phenomena can appear without having any basis in reality. In his commentary on the Madhyamakavatara, Mipham points out that people may see things which are not there when they have eye disease or are hallucinating. On this basis he says that the fact that phenomena appear is no reason to believe that they reflect any underlying reality. Personally I don't find this very convincing. Can anyone point me towards any other arguments supporting the claim?"
Since then I have come across other phenomena which are presented as examples of perceiving things which have no basis in reality, such as the moon in the water, reflected images generally, and dreams. As I understand it, the point of these examples is that the opponent is bound to agree that the perception does not depend on anything which exists inherently, and will therefore admit that at least some things can appear without any underlying (ultimate) reality. They will have to agree that, in principle, things can appear without their being any underlying reality, and this destroys the basis of their objection.
There seems to be a problem with this approach in that any perception that arises in the world depends on at least some other things in the world - the brain, for one thing - and the opponent is not bound to admit that these lack inherent existence. It seems to me that any example can only work for those who are already convinced that all things lack inherent existence, or in other words that it can only work when it is not needed.
Obviously it is fundamental in Madhyamaka that there is no contradiction between the two truths, but I am finding this proposition difficult to accept at the moment. Is there another angle I can come at this from?
Some info and a couple of links you may find helpful, or should keep you busy for a wee while at least
The Truth -- according to PrasangikasThe 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso Rinpoche in The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An Overview of Its Philosophy and Practice. Boston: Wisdom Pub., 1995. (49-54):
"According to the explanation of the highest Buddhist philosophical school, Madhyamaka-Prasangika, external phenomena are not mere projections or creations of the mind. External phenomena have a distinct nature, which is different from the mind.
The meaning of all phenomena being mere labels or designations is that they exist and acquire their identities by means of our denomination or designation of them. This does not mean that there is no phenomenon apart from the name, imputation, or label, but rather that if we analyze and search objectively for the essence of any phenomenon, it will be un-findable. Phenomena are unable to withstand such analysis; therefore, they do not exist objectively. Yet, since they exist, there should be some level of existence; therefore, it is only through our own process of labeling or designation that things are said to exist... .
Except for the Prasangika school, all the other Buddhist schools of thought identify the existence of phenomena within the basis of designation; therefore, they maintain that there is some kind of objective existence . . . .
Since the lower schools of Buddhist thought all accept that things exist inherently, they assert some kind of objective existence, maintaining that things exist in their own right and from their own side. This is because they identify phenomena within the basis of designation.
For the Prasangikas, if anything exists objectively and is identified within the basis of designation, then that is, in fact, equivalent to saying that it exists autonomously, that it has an independent nature and exists in its own right ... .
This is a philosophical tenet of the Yogacara school in which external reality is negated, that is, the atomically structured external world is negated. Because the proponents of the Yogacara philosophical system assert that things cannot exist other than as projections of one's own mind, they also maintain that there is no atomically structured external physical reality independent of mind. By analyzing along these lines, Yogacara proponents conclude that there is no atomicly structured external reality.
This conclusion is reached because of not having understood the most subtle level of emptiness as expounded by the Prasangikas. In fact, Yogacarins assert that things have no inherent existence, and that if you analyze something and do not find any essence, then it does not exist at all.
Prasangikas, on the other hand, when confronted with this un-findability of the essence of the object, conclude that this is an indication that objects do not exist inherently, not that they do not exist at all. This is where the difference lies between the two schools." You can also Google Lama Zopa's Virtue and Reality, it is online - excerpt- IV:
"There are four schools of Buddhist philosophy—Vaibashika (che-tra-mra-wa), Sautrantika (do-de-pa), Cittamatra (sem-tsam) and Madhyamika (u-ma-pa). The fourth of these is the Middle Way school and is divided into two: Svatantrika (rang-gyu-pa) and Prasangika (thal-gyur-wa). According to the Prasangika school, the object of refutation (or negation, gag-cha) is an extremely subtle object that is ever so slightly more than—a little over and above—what is merely labeled by the mind. The object of refutation is what appears to us; it is that in which we believe. "The Appearance and Cognition of Non-Existent Phenomena-Gelug PresentationThe Validity and Accuracy of Cognition of the Two Truths in Gelug-Prasangika
You might find His Holiness Dalai Lama's The Key to The Middle Way - helpful, or The Essential Dalai Lama - His Important Teachings covers The Two Truths.
Also - How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Excerpts from the section - The Two Truths:
To understand selflessness, you need to understand that everything that exists is contained in two groups called the two truths: conventional and ultimate. The phenomena that we see and observe around us can go from good to bad, or bad to good, depending on various causes and conditions. Many phenomena cannot be said to be inherently good or bad; they are better or worse, tall or short, beautiful or ugly, only by comparison, not by way of their own nature. Their value is relative. From this you can see that there is a discrepancy between the way things appear and how they actually are. For instance, something may—in terms of how it appears—look good, but, due to its inner nature being different, it can turn bad once it is affected by
conditions. Food that looks so good in a restaurant may not sit so well in your stomach. This is a clear sign of a discrepancy between appearance and reality.
These phenomena themselves are called conventional truths: they are known by consciousness that goes no further than appearances. But the same objects have an inner mode of being, called an ultimate truth, that allows for the changes brought about by conditions. A wise consciousness, not satisfied with mere appearances, analyzes to find whether objects inherently exist as they seem to do but discovers their absence of inherent existence. It finds an emptiness of inherent existence beyond appearances.
Empty of What?
Emptiness, or selflessness, can only be understood if we first identify that of which phenomena are empty. Without understanding what is negated, you cannot understand its absence, emptiness.
You might think that emptiness means nothingness, but it does not. Merely from reading it is difficult to identify and understand the object of negation, what Buddhist texts speak of as true establishment or inherent existence. But over a period of time, when you add your own investigations to the reading, the faultiness of our usual way of seeing things will become clearer and clearer.
Buddha said many times that because all phenomena are dependently arisen, they are relative—their existence depends on other causes and conditions and depends on their own parts. A wooden table, for instance, does not exist independently; rather, it depends on a great many causes such as a tree, the carpenter who makes it, and so forth; it also depends upon its own parts. If a wooden table or any phenomenon really were not dependent—if it were established in its own right—then when you analyze it, its existence in its own right should become more obvious, but it does not.
This Buddhist reasoning is supported by science. Physicists today keep discovering finer and finer components of matter, yet they still cannot understand its ultimate nature. Understanding emptiness is even deeper. The more you look into how an ignorant consciousness conceives phenomena to exist, the more you find that phenomena do not exist that way. However, the more you look into what a wise consciousness understands, the more you gain affirmation in the absence of inherent existence.
Do Objects Exist?
We have established that when any phenomenon is sought through analysis, it cannot be found. So you may be wondering whether these phenomena exist at all. However, we know from direct experience that people and things cause pleasure and pain, and that they can help and harm. Therefore, phenomena certainly do exist; the question is how? They do not exist in their own right, but only have an existence dependent upon many factors, including a consciousness that conceptualizes them.
Once they exist but do not exist on their own, they necessarily exist in dependence upon conceptualization. However, when phenomena appear to us, they do not at all appear as if they exist this way. Rather, they seem to be established in their own right, from the object's side, without depending upon a conceptualizing consciousness.
When training to develop wisdom, you are seeking through analysis to find the inherent existence of whatever object you are considering—yourself, another person, your body, your mind, or anything else. You are analyzing not the mere appearance but the inherent nature of the object. Thus it is not that you come to understand that the object does not exist; rather, you find that its inherent existence is unfounded. Analysis does not contradict the mere existence of the object. Phenomena do indeed exist, but not in the way we think they do.
What is left after analysis is a dependently existent phenomenon. When, for example, you examine your own body, its inherent existence is negated, but what is left is a body dependent on four limbs, a trunk, and a head.
If Phenomena Are Empty, Can They Function?
Whenever we think about objects, do we mistakenly believe that they exist in their own right? No. We can conceive of phenomena in three different ways. Let us consider a tree. There is no denying that it appears to inherently exist, but:
We could conceive of the tree as existing inherently, in its own right.
We could conceive of the tree as lacking inherent existence.
We could conceive of the tree without thinking that it inherently exists or not.
Only the first of those is wrong. The other two modes of apprehension are right, even if the mode of appearance is mistaken in the second and the third, in that the tree appears as if inherently existent.
If objects do not inherently exist, does this mean that they cannot function? Jumping to the conclusion that because the true nature of objects is emptiness, they are therefore incapable of performing functions such as causing pleasure or pain, or helping or harming, is the worst sort of misunderstanding, a nihilistic view. As the Indian scholar-yogi Nagarjuna says in his Precious Garland, a nihilist will certainly have a bad transmigration upon rebirth, whereas a person who believes, albeit wrongly, in inherent existence goes on to a good transmigration.
Allow me to explain. You need a belief in the consequences of actions to choose virtue in your life and discard nonvirtue. For the time being, the subtle view of the emptiness of inherent existence might be too difficult for you to understand without falling into the trap of nihilism, where you are unable to understand that phenomena arise in dependence on causes and conditions (dependent-arising). Then for the sake of your spiritual progress it would be better for now to set aside trying to penetrate emptiness. Even if you mistakenly believe that phenomena inherently exist, you can still develop an understanding of dependent-arising and apply it in practice. This is why even Buddha, on occasion, taught that living beings and other
phenomena inherently exist. Such teachings are the thought of Buddha's scriptures, but they are not his own final thought. For specific purposes, he sometimes spoke in nonfinal ways.
In What Way Is Consciousness Mistaken?
Because all phenomena appear to exist in their own right, all of our ordinary perceptions are mistaken. Only when emptiness is directly realized during completely focused meditation is there no false appearance. At that time, the dualism of subject and object has vanished, as has the appearance of multiplicity; only emptiness appears. After you rise from that meditation, once again living beings and objects falsely appear to exist in and of themselves, but through the power of having realized emptiness, you will recognize the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Through meditation you have identified both the false mode of appearance and the false mode of apprehension.
Let us return to the central point: All of us have a sense of "I" but we need to realize that it is only designated in dependence upon mind and body. The selflessness that Buddhists speak of refers to the absence of a self that is permanent, partless, and independent, or, more subtly, it can refer to the absence of inherent existence of any phenomenon. However, Buddhists
do value the existence of a self that changes from moment to moment, designated in dependence upon the continuum of mind and body. All of us validly have this sense of “I.” When Buddhists speak of the doctrine of selflessness, we are not referring to the nonexistence of this self. With this “I,” all of us rightfully want happiness and do not want suffering. It is when we exaggerate our sense of ourselves and other phenomena to mean something inherently existent that we get drawn into many, many problems."