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Buddhist Analysis: Types of Phenomena

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We are going to begin our discussion of Buddhist metaphysics. This is a large topic which covers an enormous amount of material, and all of this material is quite difficult; it is very complex, with many, many different items that are involved. But I think the important principle for studying this is that all of this is intended to serve as an analytical tool.

As you perhaps know already, the whole Buddhist training is intended to help us to gain liberation from suffering and unhappiness and its causes. Our suffering and problems arise basically because of our unawareness of reality – how we exist, how everything exists. Unawareness (ma-rig-pa) means either we just don’t know or we know or understand it incorrectly, and so we are very confused, and because of that… You see, the problem is that our mind makes things appear in all sorts of impossible ways and we believe that to correspond to reality.

One of the confusing appearances that our minds make is that things exist in a very sort of solid, concrete type of way. So we experience something and we think “Oh, there’s this horrible problem,” and we make it into a big thing and we get all upset about it. In colloquial English we say, “We make a big deal out of everything.” What we need to do is to be able to deconstruct what appears to exist solidly and so horribly to us, and if we can deconstruct it then we understand a little bit better its reality. The understanding of voidness (stong-pa-nyid) is clearly the deepest way of deconstructing that these impossible ways of existing that our mind produces are not corresponding to anything real, but we can do less deep deconstructions, which also help. That’s because whatever we experience is going to consist of various parts, various causes, various conditions, and so on; there’s nothing solid about it at all.

So these metaphysical topics that we’ll be discussing are the analytical tool to help us to deconstruct what we’re experiencing to help us to overcome problems and difficulties we’re having. In the traditional Buddhist training, one works with this material for several years – not just five short lectures, but several years – through the medium of debate. So what I’d like to do is present this material in terms of a specific type of experience, troublesome experience, that we might be having, and show how these various topics that we’re talking about here – existent, nonexistent, static, functional, etc. – how we could apply them in analyzing and deconstructing this experience.

The example that I’ve chosen – now this didn’t actually happen to me, but as a hypothetical experience – when I was coming here, at the airport when I was collecting my luggage, I took the wrong computer bag. The computer bag was sitting on the ground and I took somebody else’s. I wasn’t really paying attention. And now I arrive here and I’m really depressed and I think I’m a complete idiot and I’m very angry with myself. I’m very unhappy. Okay. So now how would we deconstruct this situation (because obviously I am suffering)?

Existent and Nonexistent Phenomena

We can, first of all, talk about topics or subjects of a debate (rtsod-gzhi). This would refer to things that we can analyze, and this includes nonexistent items or subjects (med-pa) and existent subjects or topics (yod-pa). A nonexistent one cannot be validly known. A complete idiot – someone who is totally, in absolutely every aspect, every moment of their life, an idiot – that’s nonexistent. Nobody exists like that. However, it is a topic that we can analyze. We can say “What I think is ‘I’m a total idiot.’” So it is a topic, but it is nonexistent. Now what exists can be validly known (shes-bya, validly knowable phenomena; gzhi-grub, something established as a basis for a valid knowing of it), like me, I who am a total idiot. Well, I can be validly known – I exist – but a total idiot doesn’t exist. And the computer, that exists. It’s an existent phenomenon and can be validly known. Validly means accurately and decisively.

We have another division, called – I call it – valid phenomena and invalid phenomena. Actually, before we go into this… I’d like to do this a little bit slowly, perhaps. Let’s take a minute or two to digest each of these groups that I am introducing, otherwise it’s just going to be one point after another point after another point – it’s too much.

We have topics that can be analyzed or discussed. Some of them are existent, like me or my computer – it can be validly known. And some do not exist at all, they’re nonexistent, like a total idiot, what I think I am, because there is no such thing as a total, total idiot.

We’re digesting that. We’re thinking about that. Don’t look at me expectingly; you’re supposed to be thinking about that and saying, “Yes. Yes. Now I understand it.”

Monster is a nonexistent phenomenon. I can think “I’m a monster.” Are there any monsters, real monsters? Can we validly see a monster? No. But can we talk about monsters? Yes.

Valid and Invalid Existent Phenomena

Within existent phenomena, we have things that are valid (srid-pa) and things that are invalid (mi-srid-pa). I’m using this term like, for instance, your milk: now it’s valid, and now it’s expired – it’s no longer valid. Like my U-Bahn ticket, my subway ticket in Berlin. The September one is now valid. The August one is invalid; it’s no longer valid; it’s expired.

So a valid phenomenon is one that is happening now. An invalid one is one that is either no longer happening (’das-pa) or not yet happening (ma-’ong-pa). So what’s valid is what I’m experiencing right now. I’m sitting and thinking what an idiot I am. What is no longer valid – it’s invalid – is the no-longer-happening of my picking up the wrong computer bag; that’s no longer happening now. And what’s not yet happening is, hopefully, getting my own computer back. But what I have to deal with is what’s happening right now. What’s happening right now, what is valid at this moment, is my sitting here and thinking what an idiot I am. OK? Digest that for a moment.

Can I validly know something that’s no longer happening? Yes. I can know that I did not pick up my correct computer bag. That’s no longer happening now, but I can know it correctly. It’s an existent phenomenon. Not yet happening: if they find my correct computer at the airport, I will get it back. That’s not happening yet. But I can know that, especially if I call and they say, “Yes, we have it,” so I know I will get it back. But it’s not yet happening now.

You got it? It’s like the year 2010. That’s valid; that’s happening now. The year 2009 is no longer happening. Is it an existent phenomenon? Yes. There was such a thing as the year 2009, but it’s not happening now. I can remember it. And 2011, is it an existent phenomenon? Well yes, I can plan for it. But is it happening now? No. Is the year 2011 happening somewhere else now? No. Where could it be happening? You can have a count of 2011 from a certain point in another universe, but it’s not going to be the year 2011 that will happen next year here. My old age is not happening now; not happening somewhere else either, is it? I’m not eating my tomorrow’s breakfast now, am I? It’s not happening somewhere else. But I can think about it, I can plan it, etc.

Affirmation and Negation Phenomena

We also have what’s known as affirmation phenomena (sgrub-pa) and negation phenomena (dgag-pa). For an affirmation phenomenon, it’s… Let’s get the exact definition – it’s a complicated definition – if I can find it. It doesn’t matter. An affirmation phenomenon is something that we can know just, in a sense, by itself, without having to negate anything else. Like for instance, my computer. I can just say, “This is my computer.” I didn’t have to know anything before.

But a negation phenomenon is “not my computer.” I look at this other computer, somebody else’s computer – it’s a different color, it’s a different model – and I understand “This is not my computer.” That’s a negation phenomenon. Not my computer. How could we know that this is not my computer? How would you know that? Would you have to have known something before? My computer, right. You have to have known my computer before in order to know this is not my computer. That’s the difference between an affirmation and a negation phenomenon. An affirmation phenomenon would be the presence of someone else’s computer, and an absence negation phenomenon would be the absence of my computer – “not my computer.”

Implicative and Nonimplicative Negation Phenomena

There are different types of negation phenomena. There is what I call an implicative negation phenomenon (ma-yin dgag). I’m not quite sure what it’s called in German. Jeffrey Hopkins calls it an affirming negation. Implicative here means that there’s something left over when we negate. And when we say “something left over,” what we’re referring to, the term that’s actually used is... You know when you have a boat and the boat is going through the water, and after the boat has passed through the water then what we call in English the wake (bkag-shul) of the boat is left behind – sort of a dip, an impression in the water – that is the term that’s used for what’s left behind.

So an example would be “This is not my computer.” What is left behind, what is implied by that – implicative, what’s implied by that – is somebody else’s computer. Or “My computer is not here.” What’s left over from that? My computer must be somewhere else. We know that when we see this computer, don’t we, we see it’s somebody else’s computer? It’s not mine, so it must belong to somebody else. And my computer isn’t here, so it must be somewhere else. That’s how our understanding works, doesn’t it?

A nonimplicative negation (med-dgag) is something that doesn’t leave anything behind. “My computer is absent. My computer is gone.” That doesn’t leave anything behind it, does it? It’s just gone. It’s absent. It doesn’t imply that it’s somewhere else. We’re just saying it’s absent. Or “I don’t have my computer.” Here it’s not that we’re leaving me behind; that’s not what we mean here. “I don’t have my computer” doesn’t imply that I have something else, just I don’t have my computer. Or we look for milk in the refrigerator and there is none. “There is no milk.” It doesn’t imply anything. Doesn’t leave anything over. It’s just a statement – absence, gone.

Now in this nonimplicative one – something’s absent, something’s gone – it could be either an existent phenomenon or a nonexistent phenomenon. “There is no milk in the refrigerator.” There’s also no monster in the refrigerator. So it could be an absence of something that does exist, could exist, and an absence of something that doesn’t exist, could never exist. There’s the absence of my computer. That’s something that does exist. But an absence of a total idiot – well, a total idiot doesn’t exist, could never exist. Digest that for a moment please.

So let’s review again. An existent phenomenon could either be an affirmation phenomenon or a negation phenomenon. And affirmation and negation phenomena can be either valid (presently happening), or invalid (they’re not happening any longer or they haven’t happened yet). “I don’t have my computer” – it’s happening now. “I didn’t pick up my computer yesterday. I didn’t pick up my computer” – that’s not happening now. It’s a negation phenomenon. That’s not happening now.

You see, all these different subdivisions can… they mix. That’s why we get into this whole topic that we’ll have later of relationships between – it’s set theory, basically – between two sets of things. Then it becomes much more complicated. But this is what one works with in debate.


Static Phenomena

Now the next division within existent phenomena are static phenomenena (rtag-pa), also called nonfunctional or unconditioned or unaffected phenomena (dngos-med) and nonstatic phenomena (mi-rtag-pa), also called functional or conditioned or affected phenomena (dngos-po)

So when we talk about a static phenomenon, we’re talking about something that does not change from moment to moment. I think in the definition it is something that is not momentary. We have to understand what momentary means. Momentary means that it doesn’t change from moment to moment. But some of them are eternal – they can last forever – and some of them are temporary.

Let’s use our example, the computer. The category computer, computers; that is a static phenomenon. We’ll discuss what is sometimes called "generalities" (spyi, conceptual category), and one aspect of them is categories. So the category of a table is just a category. It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t change. It’s just a category. It’s what I’m, in a sense, thinking of. What I’m thinking of. “My computer” – I’m thinking of a computer, the category computer. But this is a temporary static phenomenon. Was there a category computer before computers were invented? No. During the Stone Age there was no category computer. And way, way in the distant future when there’s no such thing as computers anymore and there are none in museums and nobody has heard of it, there’s also no longer a category computer. Right? So it’s temporary.

But the category knowable phenomenon, from a Buddhist point of view, it has no beginning, no end – it’s eternal. There’s always a category knowable phenomenon. There are always knowable phenomena. We’re not talking about me having to think this. But since mental continuums (sems-rgyud) also have no beginning and no end, then we can always think in terms of the category knowable phenomenon. OK?

I don’t want to get into tremendous detail here – it will get very complicated – but we can have static phenomena that are negation phenomena; we can have some that are affirmation phenomena.

So you’ve got this idea of static phenomena? That’s something that doesn’t change, whether it lasts forever or it just lasts a short time. As long as it lasts, it doesn’t change – it doesn’t do anything and it doesn’t change.

Functional (Nonstatic) Phenomena

Now we have functional phenomena. These are nonstatic phenomena; they change from moment to moment, they arise from causes and conditions, and they do something – they affect other things, produce effects. Some of them are eternal and some of them are temporary. So what’s temporary would be, for instance, the computer – this individual computer – or my body, something that arises at a certain point and at a certain point it’s going to disintegrate, fall apart, and moment to moment it is degenerating, going closer and closer to its end. But then there are other functional phenomena, nonstatic phenomena, changing from moment to moment that last forever, like the mental continuumindividual mental continuum – no beginning, no end, but moment to moment it changes, because moment to moment I am aware of different things; the consciousness, the mind, is aware of different things.

My computer is a nonstatic phenomenon. It’s falling apart. Eventually it’s going to break; eventually I’m not going to have it any longer – whether I lose it or somebody steals it or it just breaks. It’s falling apart from moment to moment. Gross impermanence ([[mi-rtag-pa] rags-pa]]) is when it actually breaks. Subtle impermanence (mi-rtag-pa phra-mo) is that moment to moment it’s getting closer and closer to its end.

Follow that? It’s like this class. It will end. It’s temporary. But moment to moment, something different is happening. When class is over, it’s finished. But each minute, it’s getting closer and closer to the end. What is the reason for the class ending? The reason for it ending is because it started. If it never started, it couldn’t possibly end.

Now that may seem funny, but let’s apply it to the computer. What is the reason the computer breaks? Because it was built. It was built and therefore – depending on parts, and so on, which aren’t constantly being renewed – it’s going to fall apart; it’s going to come to an end. What is the cause of death? Birth. The sickness that I die from is just the circumstance. The actual cause is that I was born. So if we were born, what do we expect? We’re going to die. Buy a computer, what can we expect? At some point it’s going to break. OK?

Is there anything else besides a mental continuum that is eternal and changes from moment to moment? An individual person, me. When we talk about there being no soul (bdag-med, Skt. anatman, lack of an impossible “soul”), it’s not that we’re denying that there is some sort of eternal thing here. The me, the self, is eternal – there’s no beginning and there’s no end – but it doesn’t exist as some sort of unchanging thing that could exist separate from a body and a mind and could be known all by itself. But Buddhism does accept a self – whether you want to call that a soul or a me or an individual or a personBuddhism does accept that, and it is eternal, and it changes from moment to moment, because now I’m doing this, now I’m doing that. That’s why I prefer to translate as no impossible self, no impossible soul. It’s not that there’s no self or no soul, but what Buddhism is negating is an impossible one. Right?

An impossible self doesn’t correspond to anything. What would be an impossible self? It would be a self that can be known separately from a body and mind and is unaffected by anything, never changes from moment to moment, and it just jumps into this body and mind and, in a sense, drives it, like driving a car, and then leaves it and goes into another car. That’s impossible. That doesn’t correspond to anything real. So that’s voidness. It’s the absence of anything actual that corresponds to this. That’s impossible. That’s why these negation phenomena are important to understand. There is no such thing. When we say the self doesn’t exist like this – well, what’s left over is it exists in some other way. OK? Digest that for a moment please.

Functional phenomena do things. They arise from causes and conditions. They change from moment to moment. Some last forever; some last just a short time, and while they last, they degenerate. There are many other kinds of nonstatic phenomena but I really don’t want to go into that, because that gets very complicated – I explained that the previous time that I explained this topic – and it’s really quite confusing, so let’s not go there. Forms of Physical Phenomena

Within functional phenomena, we have three types. That’s one way of dividing it. There are many ways of dividing, but here we’ll divide it into three, the most common way of dividing them. Here in German it’s called… the first type is called material phenomena (gzugs). I prefer forms of physical phenomena. But whatever we call it, the point is to understand what we’re talking about. And what we’re talking about is – well, there’s eleven types. So we’re talking about sights, visual sights (gzugs), sounds (sgra), smells (dri), tastes (ro), physical sensations (reg-bya). That’s five. Tactile, physical sensations. Physical sensations include rough and soft, they include hot and cold, they include a physical sensation of motion. There are a lot of physical sensations. You can feel a motion, can’t you? I mean, we would say feel, but this is such a vague word in our languages. But that’s a physical sensation of moving, isn’t it?

If we want to be technical, according to the Buddhist analysis , each of these sensory objects is made of particles, but this becomes quite difficult to understand.

We have another set of five. These are the sensors. So the cognitive sensors (dbang-po). These are the type of tiny little cells that we have with the body that are photosensitive – you know, sensitive to sights (mig-gi dbang-po) – sound-sensitive cells of the ears (rna’i dbang-po), smell-sensitive of the nose (sna’i dbang-po), taste-sensitive of the tongue (lce’i dbang-po), and physical sensation-sensitive of the body (lus-kyi dbang-po).

Then we have a third type, which can only be known by mental consciousness (chos-kyi skye-mched-pa'i gzugs, forms of physical phenomena included only among the cognitive stimulators that are all phenomena); you can’t actually know them in a sensorial sense, a sensorial way. Like for instance, what we perceive in dreams. There are what appear to be sights and sounds, etc., in dreams, but those aren’t actually objects of the eye consciousness or ear consciousness, are they? They’re objects of the mental consciousness. And we have other example as well. Particles, atoms – you can’t actually see them, but they’re a form of physical phenomenon.

So in our discussion here, my body. “I’m a complete idiot,” so my body. “I took the wrong computer,” the computer. These are forms of physical phenomena. The visual sight of the computer, the tactile sensation of the computer if I hold it in my hand, the sound of the computer when I type, these are all forms of physical phenomena. Then of course we can factor in these other divisions that we’ve spoken about. What I am seeing now, what I’m no longer seeing. The visual sight that I’m seeing now, a visual sight that I’m no longer seeing that I saw yesterday. The sight of someone else’s computer that I’m seeing now and the sight of my computer which I’m no longer seeing, for example.

Ways of Being Aware of Something

So we have forms of physical phenomena, then the second division of nonstatic phenomena is ways of being aware of something (shes-pa). There are many different ways of being aware of something:

We have something called consciousness, primary consciousness (rnam-shes). In Buddhism we don’t just speak about consciousness in general, a general term here; we speak of, specifically, visual consciousness (mig-gi rnam-shes), sound consciousness (rna’i rnam-shes), smell consciousness (sna’i rnam-shes), taste consciousness (lce’i rnam-shes), physical sensation consciousness (lus-kyi rnam-shes), and mental consciousness (yid-kyi rnam-shes) (what would be involved with dreaming or thinking). And what primary consciousness does is it cognizes; it’s aware of what’s known as the essential nature (ngo-bo) of something. The essential nature of something is what general type of thing is it. So it’s aware of something as a sight; visual consciousness is aware of something as being a sight. Audio consciousness is aware of something as being a sound. Just this general category of what type of information is it. Is it visual information or audio information? If you think of the example of a computer, we have a digital representation of something, and there has to some sort of processor that can be aware that this is visual information or that this is audio information. This is what primary consciousness does. OK? That’s primary consciousness.

Then we have mental factors (sems-byung, subsidiary awareness), and mental factors help us to deal with that information. So some of these factors are things like attention (yid-la byed-pa), concentration (ting-nge-’dzin, mental fixation), interest (don-gnyer), feeling some level of happy or unhappy (tshor-ba). And then we have all the various emotions that also color our experience of an object, both constructive (dge-ba) or positive emotions, and destructive (mi-dge-ba) ones, disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs).

So we have a whole cluster here of a primary consciousness and all the accompanying mental factors, and they’re all focused on the same object, and they’re occurring at the same time, and so on; they have five things in common (mtshungs-ldan lnga). So we can think of the image of a chandelier, with one bright light – a big light in the middle – and all these little lights around it, all going on at the same time and illuminating the same thing.

OK. So we have ways of being aware of something. So I’m looking at this bag and I’m distinguishing it’s not my computer, and I’m feeling unhappy about it, and I’m angry with it – and all of these things are happening here. Noncongruent Affecting Variables

Then we have a third category (ldan-min ’du-byed, nonstatic abstraction, noncongruent affecting variable), which is difficult to translate. It is something that is nonstatic – it’s changing from moment to moment – but it is neither a form of physical phenomenon nor a way of being aware of something. For instance, me, the self: it is something that is imputed, we would say, on a stream of continuity of all sorts of changing factors, both physical and ways of being aware.

So what’s happening every moment? What’s happening every moment is that there is a different type of consciousness operating. Sometimes they’re operating several at the same time – both seeing and hearing, for example. Some are manifest. Some are subliminal, like for instance feeling the sensation of my clothing next to my body. I mean, there is that tactile sensation, that consciousness, but I’m not aware of it, so it’s subliminal – not paying attention to it. The physical sensation of your clothing. How about the physical sensation of your tongue in your mouth? How often are you aware of that? But if you paid attention to it, you could feel your tongue in your mouth, can’t you? Which is really quite weird, if you think about it.

So there are all these sights and sounds and smells, and all these consciousnesses, and there’s all these mental factors, and they’re all changing at different rates. Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m unhappy; sometimes I have this emotion, that emotion; my attention is changing, the level of it; my level of interest is changing – all the time at different rates. And we can impute on that me, as a way, in a sense, almost, of organizing this. So am I seeing? Am I thinking? Well, yes. But I’m not thinking by myself. I’m not seeing by myself. It’s the eye consciousness, and the eye consciousness is seeing. And therefore we say, “I am seeing,” though it is imputed, it’s labeled onto what’s happening. The “I” can’t see by itself; it cannot exist separately and cannot be known separately from a basis – here, the consciousness.

The self – me – cannot be known separately, and it can’t see or function or do anything separately, on its own, but only in terms of it being labeled, described, imputed on the experience that’s happening. It’s not something separate from everything that’s going on in my experience, sort of as a distant observer watching it or pressing the buttons and making it happen. This, one has to think about quite a lot.

Who is the author of the voice that goes on in my head? Who is talking? I’m talking, not somebody else. Is there a separate little me sitting somewhere in a little box in a control room with a microphone and talking? Obviously not. It’s getting information in on the video screen and from the audio equipment, coming from the ears, and has this control board there and is worrying “Oh, what should I do now? Oh, I’ll do that. I’ll lift my hand,” and it presses the button and the hand lifts. It’s not like that, is it? But it feels like that. You see, this is the deception. This is confusing, isn’t it? It feels as though there’s somebody inside there talking, but that’s impossible; it doesn’t correspond to anything real. There isn’t actually something sitting inside me, like in the movie “Alien” – some sort of alien thing sitting inside me, possessing my body and manipulating it.

But such an independently existing me seems real – that’s the problem – and we believe it's real. If you stop believing it then you’re a liberated being. And when your mind stops producing this deceptive appearance then you’re a Buddha. That’s the difference. Liberated being: your mind still produces this garbage, but you know it’s garbage and you don’t believe it, so you don’t react to it. When you’re a Buddha your mind doesn’t make this appearance at all.


So we have these three types of functional phenomena: forms of physical phenomena, ways of being aware, and things that are neither.

Another example would be time, of the third. Time is passing moment to moment to moment, it’s nonstatic, but it’s not a form of physical phenomenon and it’s not a way of being aware of anything. So as I don’t have my computer and time is passing, the longer that I leave it and don’t do anything about it, the less are the chances that I’ll get it back, for example.

And again there are many permutations of what can be a negation phenomenon – there’s static, there’s some that are nonstatic, there are many, many different variations here; many possibilities. I don’t have my computer. The not having my computer – well, I don’t have it for one minute, then I don’t have it for two minutes, then I don’t have it for three minutes, then I don’t have it for four minutes, then I don’t have it for four days. It’s a changing phenomenon, isn’t it? It’s a negation phenomenon, not having it. So there are many possibilities of how these different divisions intersect. The not having it is changing from moment to moment.

Transcript of a seminar, Knappenberg, Austria, September 2010