Reflections on The Middle Way and Recognizing My "Mother"
Updated: Feb 22
Root Text of "Recognizing My Mother": https://fpmt.app.box.com/s/o651pwy54z15mwwqpy0n4sx1qbigs2vw
Commentary on "Recognizing My Mother," by His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
Prajnaparamita, Buddha of Wisdom, embodiment of the Middle Way.
Art by Fred Van Der Zee https://www.digitalthangka.com
Reflections on The Middle Way and Recognizing My “Mother"
by Venerable Yönten
December 20th, 2020
The Four Point Analysis
The four point analysis points to the necessity of identifying and refuting the existence of an inherently existent self – the object of negation from the Consequentialist view. Discovering intellectually and going on to realize experientially (and with direct perception) that an inherently existent self is not possible is vital in cutting the root of samsara as well as going on to liberation and full enlightenment.
The four points are: (1) recognizing the object to be refuted, (2) ascertaining the pervasion of the two possibilities of oneness/sameness and separation/difference, (3) ascertaining the lack of oneness of the I and the aggregates, and (4) ascertaining the lack of difference of the I/self and the aggregates.1
The reasoning of this sequence begins with identifying the object of negation by bringing it forward into our mind. Studying it mentally and asking ourselves, “if it did exist, how would it be?” We can remember instances in our own life when an inherent and obvious I/self, did seem real. We can think of times when we were praised, accused, in danger or whatever example works to get that false I to arise in our mind’s eye. That self that seems to have concrete, “oneness” with the valid basis, the five aggregates, is the object of negation. Instead of seeing the aggregates as the valid basis for labeling self, ignorance believes that the self is owning the aggregates like a puppet and puppeteer or that the self in like an aggregate, albeit a particularly dominate one. There are many other examples, but the point is to find the “pretender” self before examining if it is real or not. We can’t jump the step of finding the seemingly inherent self and our belief in it or else the negation process won’t make a deep enough impact on our mind to confront our negative, habitual tendencies that flow from our innate ignorance.2
The next analysis is “ascertaining the pervasion of the two possibilities” which is to ask, if this imagined self, that seems so solid and real, actually were to exist – it could only exist in one of two ways: the self and the aggregates would have to be one with each other / the same as each other or they would have to be different from each other and separate. In other words, the self/I/me would have to be one with/together with each aggregate or the self/I/me would have to be something totally separate from the five aggregates. We sit with those two until we realize that if the self were to inherently exist, those are the only two relationships the self could have with its parts.
We then move on to looking at if the first possible relationship, can actually be the state of affairs for the self and aggregates so we do the stage of, “ascertaining the lack of oneness of the I and the aggregates.” We think, if the self were one with the aggregates, then labelling “I” would be superfluous. It would simply be another name for the aggregates. That, or together with each aggregate there would also be an “I” and therefore there would be multiple selves, independent from one another. Are we like a flock of birds or a herd of horses? Changing direction together and having a loose form when examined from afar? This idea being absurd, we negate it and settle on it being an impossible way for the self and aggregates to exist with each other.
If the aggregates and self are not the same as (or one with) each other, then we must examine the next possible relationship, “ascertaining the lack of difference of the I and the aggregates.” We ask ourselves, if the self were different to or separate from the aggregates, it would not rely on the aggregates for its existence - it would have autonomy. Then there could be an experience of the self that was unrelated to the experience of the aggregates. Is the self, hovering above the aggregates, telling them what to do like I’m a conductor and my aggregate my orchestra? If the self were separate from the aggregates it would be a “findable” sixth aggregate or “boss” aggregate, in charge of the others. Since such a self cannot be found and so we conclude that relationship is untenable as well.
Having reached the conclusion that there is a false self that appears to the mind, that if it were as real as it seems to our ignorance, that it could only exist in one of two ways (same or different from the aggregates) then seeing that both ways are impossible – we conclude that an inherently existent self is impossible. We find the non-finding and rest our mind in that knowledge, repeating and reinforcing it, session by session, until that knowledge is fueled by enough familiarity and merit to turn into an actual realization. 3
The Diamond Sliver Logic
Similar to the four-point analysis above is the Diamond Slivers Analysis which also negate inherent existence through reasoning. When doing deep reflection or analytical meditation, there are six main steps related to negating the four extremes of production. Like in the four-point analysis, we have to first identify the object of negation. We have to see the way it seems that the self is findable. The self appears to truly existence, from its own side or by way of its nature and characteristics when in fact, that is not the case at all.
Then we look at the four extremes of production related to our body as an example, and check, is it produced: from itself, from other, from both and causelessly? If the body inherently exists as it seems to, then it must be produced in one of those four ways.4
Then we dig into the first way, is it possible for something, like the body, to be produced from itself or that the cause of the body and the resultant body are the same entity? This would contradict worldly convention that know that the cause of a human body was the sperm and ovum of our parents meeting and a body growing from there. So, if there is not an inherently produced body from itself, then could it be inherently produced from something inherently other? But how could an unrelated cause produce an unrelated effect? Then an apple seed could sprout into a mango tree and this also defies worldly convention and logic. Also, if the cause and effect were inherently other, then the cause would have to exist simultaneously with its effect. This creates all kinds of problematic conclusions. For example, the body we have now, at this age, would have no causal relationship to the body we had a year ago.5
There can’t be production from both itself and something not itself, inherently, for the same reasons as described when the two reasoning’s were separated, as above. The idea of causeless production is absurd for similar reasons for why unrelated “other-powered” production is absurd. The consequence would be that there is no relationship between what we obviously see has a relationship – like mother and her biological child. Like our body’s continued existence dependent on the food we eat to sustain it. If there was causeless production, anything could randomly pop into existence and stay unchanging.6
The term “Diamond Slivers,” refers to the way even a small diamond is incredibly strong, so too this reasoning has great strength in overcoming our grasping at inherent existence. The reasoning of the “Diamond Slivers,” is elaborated in Nagarajuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way (and Chandrakirti’s supplement to it) a mainly involves refuting the four extremes of production and these four refutations on their own, only negate. As non-affirming negations, nothing is positive or existent is referred to or implied. They do not complete the picture for understanding relative truth, as they do not point to the presence of nominal production or existence in mere name. One needs to understand that the four: from self, from other, from both, without cause - are an exhaustive list of production possibilities or else there will be lingering doubts both in and out of meditation. Rationally, it makes sense to say that production of something or someone either has causes or doesn’t have causes. If people and other phenomena are in fact findable or inherently produced, then their cause and their results would either be: the same as each other, different from each other, or somehow a product that is both the same and different entities or some kind of spontaneous or causeless product, which is obviously (after analysis) not the case.7
The King of Reasons: Dependent Arising
Another line of reasoning is the so-called, “king of reasons,” which is: all phenomena are empty inherent existence because of being dependent arisings. This line of reasoning, used by the Prasangika Madhyamaka’s, is called the king of reasons because by using just that one line of reasoning by itself, it is powerful enough to prevent us from falling into either of the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. This reasoning places us squarely in the “middle way” that the Buddha intended for us to understand and realize in order to become liberated.8
The extreme of externalism is believing that phenomena can inherently exist. By seeing that people, things and events exist are dependent in many ways, we avoid this extreme. Dependent arising can be analyzed on a few different levels. For impermanent phenomena, we can reflect on their arising from substantial causes and co-active conditions, like a wooden table being dependent on wood as the substantial cause and the carpenter and hammer and nails etc. as co-active conditions. For both impermanent and permanent phenomena, we can consider the ways that they depend upon their parts, as well as context, in order to function and be used. Impermanent and permanent phenomena also depend upon their own basis of designation and mind’s imputation / labelling on that basis.
The extreme of nihilism is also prevented by this statement because in order for something to be named, used and function - it must exist, albeit nominally in mere name. Everything is empty because it depends and everything depends because it is empty. To refer to something as either dependent or empty there has to be a “something” there to refer to. 9
This “king of reasons" while shorter than the four-point analysis and the reasoning of the diamond slivers, is more complete than either of them because it not only negates inherent existence, it also negates nihilism - specifically and directly by naming dependent arising as the reason for emptiness of inherent existence. For other reasonings, one may come to the same conclusion, but to have the whole story of both relative and ultimate truth laid out so succinctly and directly, one has a more efficient method with fewer pitfalls.
Reflection on verses two and three of “Recognizing My Mother”
The verses center around the metaphors of the mother, father, and child. As Yangsi Rinpoche explains*: “The Mother” represents the emptiness of inherent existence from the Consequentialist perspective, “The Father” represents the reasoning and fact of phenomena being dependently arising and the “lunatic child” represents ordinary beings like ourselves – deluded by ignorance, who have yet to realize emptiness. “Lunatic” because of the insane thoughts and behaviors we do under the influence of suffering, afflictions and karma. “Child” because of the immaturity of our level of development on the spiritual path as well as our understanding and practice of the dharma, in particular the wisdom realizing emptiness.
“This lunatic child, who lost his mother long ago will soon learn by pure chance,
that he just failed to recognize her.
She was with him all along!”
“Perhaps mother is the yes and no emptiness,
as whispered to me by my father, dependent origination.
All duality is mother’s benign smile;
the cycle of life and death, her verbal display.”
“By pure chance,” (according to Yangsi Rinpoche) is not a literal translation but is used to indicate the incredibly rare conditions that came together in order for us to begin to recognize reality as it is. We needed the auspicious coming together of meeting the Guru who accurately explains the teachings on emptiness and dependent arising with the fact of our ever-present buddhanature, allowing us to transform, purify and develop. There also had to be a great amassing of merit in order for us to have a sense of affinity with the teachings – for them to resonate, be understood and practiced. The author did pilgrimage to Manjushri’s cave as one way of accumulating the merit needed to meet these teachings and so we must have worked hard at similar virtuous activities with positive motivations in order to have met them as well.
“Who lost his mother…failed recognize her…was with him all along” means that despite our innate ignorance from beginningless time, that has not understood or realized that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence and has been “lost” in our “lunatic” ways of delusions and afflictions because of that failure to recognize that mother-emptiness. Nevertheless, emptiness and the possibility of realizing it, has always been with us - though at present we are like a “child,” in our naive projections and beliefs in the opposite, inherent existence.
The “yes and no emptiness” refers to the similar understanding we gain from the phrase in the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, “Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness,” explaining that emptiness and form, etc. are one in entity though different conceptual isolates – like water and a wave. Another way to understand the “yes and no” could be showing the way in which we can analyze back and forth, with logic and reasoning, to understand the relationship between emptiness and dependent arising.
The “whisper” indicates: the “quiet,” implicit or indirect influence that the dependent arising reasoning gradually has on our development of valid cognition. Through hearing, contemplating and meditating on dependent arising, we arrive at the correct understanding of emptiness itself – eventually realizing it directly
The Mother’s “benign smile,” and “verbal display,” is that duality that is “communicated” or heard by our ignorance despite the mother being like a space of infinite possibility that is the emptiness of inherent existence. This ignorant way we hear what is communicated by the mother/reality is why we create karma and disturbing emotions and project the “cycle of birth and death,” meaning the pattern of currently uncontrolled rebirths we take as a samsaric being, described in the twelve links of dependent arising. Emptiness itself is said to be inexpressible, truly understood only through direct perception.
* Yangsi Rinpoche oral teachings, Maitripa College, Portland OR, USA 2020
1 Zopa Rinpoche, Lama. How Things Exist. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. 46-50. 2008.
2 Hopkins, Jeffrey. Meditation on Emptiness. Wisdom Publications. 44-45. 1996.
3 Zopa Rinpoche, Lama. How Things Exist. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. 46-53. 2008.
4 Hopkins, Jeffrey. Meditation on Emptiness. Wisdom Publications. 57-59. 1996.
7 Hopkins, Jeffrey. Meditation on Emptiness. Wisdom Publications. 131-150. 1996.
8 Tsering, Geshe Tashi. Emptiness. Wisdom Publications. 105-107. 2000.
Hopkins, Jeffrey. Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom Publications. (1996).
Tsering, Geshe Tashi. Emptiness: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 5. Boston: Wisdom Publications. (2000).
Zopa Rinpoche, Lama. How Things Exist: Teachings on Emptiness. Boston: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. Kindle Edition. (2008).
Find translations of the text in German, Italian, and Vietnamese, plus explanatory notes of the text by Geshe Kelsang Wongmo on the FPMT “Prayers and Practices Free Downloads” page: https://fpmt.org/education/teachings/texts/prayers-practices/#ar
For translation of the text into additional languages and links to live translation of the teaching, please go to https://DalaiLama.com/live: https://www.dalailama.com/live