Philosophical questions on reality and interdependence

Select a link to find the Dalai Lama's answer.

Q: Over the last few years the physics community has shown increasing interest in questions dealing with the understanding of a reality which seems to escape scientists, despite the great precision and powers of prediction of modern theories, such as quantum physics. Generally a physicist seeks not only to report on appearances and the sequence of an events's cause and effect, but also to perfect an intelligible way of interpreting what we call "nature." Our creativity seems to depend largely on this. In order to accomplish this we create representations in term of atoms, particles, forces, energies, space, time, etc.

The Buddhist tradition contains a great number of texts dealing with the nature of phenomena, discussing the reality of atoms, the nature of space and time. Would you explain to us why Buddhist teachings insist on this question? Do you feel it is important for scientists in their research to take into consideration the explication found in the Middle Why which refutes the inherent existence of phenomena?

A: This is why when followers of this school speak of negations they refute exclusive negations and admit only evocative negations. The followers of the Sautrantika school hold that certain phenomena, such as negations, are merely imputations or designations of discursive perceptions. This is the case, for example, with space, with compound phenomena dissociated from the form and the mind or the individual. Having said that, the meaning assigned here to the word "designation" or "imputation" differs slightly from that of the Madhyamika school, according to which all phenomena exist merely by simple imputation or designation.

According to the Cittamatra school, it does not matter whether we are speaking of the nominal basis of designation, of the nominal designation "form" applied to a form, or finally of the conceptual basis of the representative perception of the form as form - the form is believed not to exist by itself, in an exterior manner. However, if we look again at the earlier Sautrantika tradition, the form, as the conceptual basis of the representative perception apprehending it, exists by virtue of its own characteristics.

Up to this point, all Buddhist schools affirmed that all phenomena have an absolute existence. The followers of the Madhyamika , school, however, refute the absolute existence of phenomena. Among these followers, those of the first sub-school, the Svatantrika, consider phenomena to exist conventionally, on their own. The other sub-school, the Prasangika, holds that even conventional phenomena do not exist through their own characteristics. All schools accept non-self, but the way in which it is conceived becomes progressively more and more subtle.

One question must be asked. If by "reality" we mean that once we have sought a designated object it can be found and is sufficient unto itself, then Buddhist philosophy denies the existence of such a reality. Reality does exist, however, if we define it as a situation where, although we cannot find the conceived object as such when we seek it, we nevertheless accept its existence as a designation. The Madhyamika or Middle Way philosophy places great emphasis upon the elimination of the two extremes.

What in physics is called "undiscovered" refers to a field which is infinitely partial and restricted in relation to the Buddhist notion of the "unfindable" character of the analysed object. For Buddhists it is not enough to assert that the apprehension of self is false and that it will automatically disappear once we have understood that the object of our erroneous perception does not exist. We must eliminate this erroneous perception of our ego, that is, our apprehension of self, and not the perception of self as a simple designation. Why go to such trouble?

As I already explained briefly at an earlier stage, from this false perception an exaggerated vision of the ego will arise, one which is far removed from reality, and from that point we can divide the world in two: on the one hand, everything which has to do with self; and, on the other, everything else. We feel attachment for the first and aversion toward the second. It is precisely to weaken this attachment and aversion that we strive to eliminate the erroneous perception of the ego.

The Middle Way seeks principally to eliminate the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. If we do not eliminate the extreme of eternalism we will not have the means to eliminate the false perception of our ego. At the other extreme, nihilism totally denies the existence of an ego. If we do not eliminate that extreme by reaching certainty with regard to the positive and negative aspects of an act and its agent on a conventional level, we will likewise reject the law of cause and effect, and that is something which is inadmissible. By ruling out the extreme of nihilism, we a&m that whoever creates or accumulates a cause must necessarily experience the results thereof, By refuting the extreme of eternalism, we avoid an exaggerated apprehension of the ego. This is the explanation of the Middle Way of the Madhyamika. In short, we must endeavour to eliminate the erroneous perception of the ego and reinforce the correct view of the ego, without limiting ourselves to a strictly intellectual comprehension of these notions. Once we have understood this, we must continue to reflect and meditate on the subject so that a true inner transformation can take place. These notions will be more and more beneficial to us as pure mind gradually becomes familiar with them.

Q: You just said, a few minutes ago, that emotions can be a source of suffering. Do you have a definition for illness specific to Buddhism? Is illness the sign of an anomaly in one: biological or psychological behaviour, or is it a physical disorder pointing to a psychological disorder? Isn't it normal that at certain times in life a human being will become ill! And what should the attitude of the medical profession be in these conditions; should it seek to remove the anomaly, by any means possible or help the human being live with it?

A: With regard to the states of mind sometimes referred to as "emotions," we can distinguish positive ones and negative ones. Thus, we say that feelings such as kindness, love, and compassion are positive emotions. But this is tantamount to saying that emotions subsist in the flow of consciousness of Buddhas, since such qualities emanate from their minds. This must not be confused with the affirmation that Buddhas are always concentrated on emptiness. Once Buddha-hood is attained there is no longer any representative or discursive perception. What remains is direct comprehension of emptiness. But when they meditate on the wisdom of which emptiness is a part, all the qualities such as love and compassion are present in the minds of Buddhas.

As for the negative states of mind, we speak of the three main kleshas - afflicting emotions (literally, "poisons" of the mind) - attachment, aversion, and ignorance. From the point of view of a practising Buddhist, these afflicting factors or mental poisons are the true mental illness. But we will not be cured of this illness until we achieve liberation. Before we reach that point, we will speak, therefore, of illness on a less subtle level.

In our society in general we consider a person to be perfectly healthy when his or her mind is not troubled or deeply perturbed by the three afflictions of the mind, even if these negative factors remain present in that person. It does occur, however, that under the influence of the three kleshas the mind, deeply disturbed, will lapse into confusion. At this point we can speak of mental illness. We distinguish two levels of mental illness: gross and subtle; both may be associated with physical illness. For this reason, Tibetan medicine regards a patient as a whole entity, ,taking into account not only his or her body but also his or her mind. This is why there are those who treat mental illness by combining Western psychotherapy with Buddhist methods. I think this is an excellent method.

Now, what should our response to illness be? It is perfectly obvious that all beings aspire to happiness and that they have every legitimate right to seek it. At the same time, they wish never to be afflicted by illness or any form of suffering whatsoever. We must try to prevent suffering and, in this context, preventive medicine is judicious. We must try to prevent illness in every way possible. If in spite of our efforts, certain conditions lead to illness and suffering, we must try to think clearly and not add to our suffering by worrying.

Q: We have the unique opportunity to examine, together with the Dalai lama, some issues dealing with the heart of scientific practice from the point of view of interdependence. Before you begin this discussion, would His Holiness explain in a few words the meaning of interdependence in Buddhist philosophy and what you hope to take with you from this symposium?

A: I have learned a great many things from my encounters with scientists of all sorts and profited greatly from these meetings. Certain Buddhist explanations have also proven useful to scientists, insofar as they have enabled them to consider the specialisations from another prospective. Most of you, I believe, are familiar with the elementary Buddhist approach, in particular that of the Mahayana, where we should initially be sceptical, then probe the question, and finally accept it once we are convinced of its veracity. We even have the right -- with, of course, as we are Buddhists, the highest respect -- to refute the teachings of the Buddha if our discoveries contradict them. As you can see, we are, in a way, free to have a critical mind, even with regard to our own philosophy. In such a context I see no obstacles to engaging in dialogues with scientists or even with radical materialists. On the contrary, this is a very good thing.

In addition, there are, in my experience, certain ideas which we take for granted. As a result, our reasoning process remains insufficient. Critical questions which make us think about the subjects concerned are therefore very useful. For people who are brought up in a Buddhist culture, certain concepts are self-evident. Because of this, we sometimes neglect to follow the entire thread of complex reasoning to its conclusion. This is why questions raised by people of diverse disciplines oblige us to envision these question in a new way.

To begin with, I would like to present briefly the Buddhist view of interdependence. We may comprehend this principle, also called dependent origination, on different levels, beginning with that of causality, the law of cause and effect accepted by all four schools of Buddhist philosophy. There is another way to understand this principle, to see it in relation to the fact that a whole depends on its parts. Indeed, any existent thing is considered to be a whole, that is, composed of parts. Since it is made up of parts, it depends upon them. Its very existence depends on its parts and it cannot exist in an autonomous or independent manner.

To give a better explanation of the principle of interdependence, we must place it in the context of the Buddhist description of reality. First of all, all existent phenomena are either permanent or impermanent. There is no third possibility. Among the impermanent phenomena we find physical phenomena, also called "form," and non-physical existents which include, on the one hand, mental phenomena (the mind), and on the other, abstract phenomena, known as "compound phenomena dissociated from form and mind." The interdependence of physical phenomena is defined in relation to space; such phenomena depend on their directional parts. The interdependence of non-physical phenomena is envisioned in relation to time or even according to spatial directions. The mind, for example, is a succession of moments. We speak of a mental continuum. We say of, compound phenomena dissociated from form and mind that they also depend on their directional parts. As for non-compound space itself, we speak of the south of space, the east, etc.

I have been presenting the principle of interdependence in a general manner according to the Madhyamika school, the Middle Way, which includes two sub-schools, of which the Prasangika school (the "Consequentialists") is the higher. This school adds an even more subtle explanation to existing interpretations of dependent origination -- that of the unfindableness, the "undetectability," of any designated existent thing whatever. In other words, when through analytical method we seek the phenomenon behind its appearance, it is unfindable. However, if it is said that existents are unfindable after they have been sought through analytical process, should we then conclude that they do not exist at all? To abandon this nihilistic view, we will answer with a categorical "No." Phenomena exist -- not in an autonomous way, per se, but rather in a relation of dependency with other phenomena, such as the name by which they are designated. This is the most profound way to understand the principle of interdependence. Phenomena exist, therefore, as denominations. No phenomena exist otherwise. However, everything which can be designated by the mind does not necessarily exist. The most difficult thing is to determine, among all the things imputed by the mind, which ones exist and which do not. Even while we deny the autonomous and independent status of existents, we must not fall into the trap of an exaggerated relativism in which everything the mind conceives of is real. The problem now is to determine which criteria will enable us to find out which phenomena among ail those designated by the mind actually do exist. The Prasangika texts describe three such criteria: a phenomenon conceived by the mind is said to exist, first of all, if it is admitted by an immediate, non-discursive perception; then, if this immediate perception is not contradicted by a known perception which observes the conventional plan; and finally, if its existence is not negated by the analytical mind which examines the ultimate mode of existence of a phenomenon. According to these three criteria we can determine whether or not a phenomenon exists conventionally. These criteria refer solely to the mind perceiving the object in question, and this reminds us once again that nothing can exist independently from the mind which perceives it.

This obliges us to delimit the notion of known perception. For all the schools, with the exception of the Prasangika school, a known perception apprehends its object without the slightest error or inaccuracy. These schools tolerate no element of inaccuracy in a known perception, whereas the Prasangika school of the Middle Way affirms that, although a known perception cannot err in the acknowledgment of the apprehended object, an element of inaccuracy may nevertheless be present. Let us take, for example, the case of the known discursive perception of the impermanence of sound: this experience, which occurs solely in relation to the object apprehended -- the impermanence of the phenomenon of sound -- is nonetheless inexact for followers of the Prasangika school, because they hold its' object to be endowed, moreover, with an absolute, independent existence. All the other schools accept the inherent existence of conventional reality. So for them the perception that phenomena exist in this way is car rect, just as the known perception is from all aspects correct and exact. According to the Prasangika school, the only perfectly accurate perception, free of any form of error, is the direct and convincing experience of emptiness -- that is, the non-representative perception of the ultimate nature of phenomena.

This has been a brief presentation of the principle of interdependence.

The material on this page has been collected from the recent book, "Beyond Dogma: The Challenge of the Modern World", (c) 1996 North Atlantic Books, translated by Alison Anderson and Marianne Dresser from talks given during His Holiness's visit to France end 1993.
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