To Be or Not To Be

By way of the above logical demonstration, Madhyamika raises its own peculiar questions regarding ontology, the way in which things exist. To say that nothing truly exists is all well and good, but what are we to make of the fact that existence generally seems to be happening? If things do not truly exist, how substantial is any object that conventionally exists? There is a broad spectrum of ontological possibilities between the extreme of true existence and the extreme of nihilism. Aside from the non-Buddhist schools of Indian thought, there are four main divisions of Buddhism that hold their respective positions regarding the status of external objects. In the interests of brevity the Vaibhasika, Sautrantika and Yogacara positions will be left aside so that we may concentrate on the disputes within Madhyamika.

It should be reiterated that within the Madhyamika systems there are different ways of cutting the pie of conventional existence. Some of the same labels are used by the systems to designate aspects of theory whose definitions are not in fact interchangeable. More specifically, both Prasangika and Svatantrika consider that phenomena are 'posited by the power of an awareness', but they do not agree as to how this happens. A commonly used tool for sorting out the fine points is the analogy of the horse and pebble as described in Tsonkapa's Clarifier of the Meaning of the Middle Way. When the meaning of the analogy is described in terms of both Prasangika and Svatantrika interpretation, then their differences in the meaning of 'existing by way of own character' and 'posited by the power of awareness' will be clear.

There is a magician and an audience. The magician places on the ground a pebble. By casting a spell, the magician causes a horse to appear on the 'underlying base' of the pebble. The audience is affected by the spell in such a way that they see the horse, and believe that it is really there. The magician also sees the horse, but in his mind he knows that it is not really there. A third party comes along and, having been absent when the spell was cast, sees no horse and does not believe that there is a horse. For him, there is only the pebble.

The central disagreement between Prasangika and Svatantrika concerning the nature of external objects is their difference over the conventional existence of an object's own character. The Svatantrikas describe the pebble's mode of being as conventionally existent from its own side, that is, it has an objective mode that is established by way of its own character. That is not the end of the story - the horse does not exist as 'horse' until somebody looks at the pebble, or to be precise, until it appears to a non-defective mind. So the objective mode of subsistence of the object that exists from its own side does not exist independently of the consciousness apprehending it, thus avoiding the extreme of permanence. On the other hand, the consciousness does not impute phenomena without any objective basis, for if external objects had no objective basis of existence this would be, according to Svatantrika, an extreme of annihilation. The mode of being established from own side, which is posited through the consciousness apprehending it, is the conventional/dependent mode of being.

In terms of our analogy, the magician understands that while he is seeing a horse, that horse's appearance is due to its objective mode of existence (the pebble) posited by the power of the magician's own mind. The pebble is dependent on the mind affected by the spell for its appearance as a horse. The magician represents those who understand emptiness inferentially, that is, he knows that the appearance of the horse is false, yet the horse nevertheless appears to him. The audience does not understand the nature of the dependence of the horse on their awareness for its existence, so they think there is a real horse in front of them and that it would be there if they left the room. The latecomer represents one who understands emptiness directly and sees only the inherently existing base of the pebble.

It is this inherent existence of the pebble that the Prasangikas protest. The Svatantrikas claim that existence by way of the object's own character, existence by way of the object's own entity, existence by way of the object's own entityness, existence capable of withstanding a search for the object designated, and inherent existence, do not ultimately exist, but are necessarily conventionally existent. If they were not, annihilation would result. The Prasangikas feel that asserting inherent existence of objects logically leads to the extreme of permanence, even though they are only conventionally inherently existent. Taking the lead from the Kasyapa Chapter Sutra, which says that phenomena are empty of themselves as being established as their own mode of being (13), Prasangikas constructed a different paradigm of conventional existence.

For the Prasangikas, because of the lack of a true self of an object, the awareness by which the object is posited imputes all the qualities of that object. If, because of the lack of being one or many, an object has no part that can be found to exist as the self of that object, then it is not possible to find any existence from own side, even conventionally. Tsongkapa describes how one might see a coiled rope in the dark and mistakenly impute the presence of a snake. The snake is real to the mind positing it, causing a fearful reaction etc., although the snake is not to be found there. "As a snake is imputed on a coiled rope, so should own character be understood as unestablished", wrote Candrakirti in the commentary on Aryadeva's Treatise of Four Hundred Stanzas (14). The root text says, "If there is no existence of attatchment,etc., without conceptual thought, who of the wise would hold these conceptual things as inherent objects?" (15)

Supposing that the pebble represents the mode of existence from own side of a horse that is not appearing to an awareness, there remains the dilemna of finding which part of the so-called inherently existing pebble becomes the horse. Another famous analogy, that of the chariot, describes how an object can be logically dissected into any number of different groups of parts. This analysis depends entirely on the awareness that is dissecting the chariot. Any part of the chariot you care to name, from the wheel to any of its constituent atoms, is analytically unfindable. Therefor all of these parts, and the whole chariot as well, exist only through the power of the consciousness designating them. The Prasangikas denounce the Svatantrika refutation of a self of phenomena as 'coarse', because although the Svatantrikas reject the notion that phenomena exist as their self without appearing to an awareness, they still accept a 'subtle' self of phenomena, inherent existence. The Prasangika find this contradictory and reject the subtle self as well. They assert that phenomena are posited by a conceptual awareness that entirely subjectively designates an object to its basis of designation.

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Copyright © 2005 Dan Haig