Art by Kaz Tanahashi
The Yogacara Path to Deep Freedom
A Commentary and Practice Guide
For Vasubandhu’s Three Natures Treatise,
Scholars believe that this short treatise, it’s only 38 verses long, is Vasubandhu’s last and most mature writing. Although there are a few difficult spots in the text, for Vasubandhu the language is quite accessible. Its real importance, however, lies in the fact that it pointed to a new nondual path to liberation which has, since the 9th century, dominated Buddhism. As we explore these “three natures,” we need to remember that the reason to conceive of phenomena as having three natures, three “own-beings,” is that they form a raft, a therapeutic modality, a path to ending the cause of suffering and to cultivating a way of life without suffering.
For Vasubandhu, every phenomenon has three different interlocking natures, each one implicated in the other two, and all three being present for the phenomenon to be present. Why would we care about the three natures? Buddhism is a method of cleansing ourselves of afflictions and defilements, cleansing us of suffering, and realizing the Three Natures is a methodology for doing exactly that.
At a deeper level, as Andy suggests, this treatise can be seen as filling in certain gaps left by Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu’s great predecessor. As discussed in detail elsewhere on DeepDharma (see Our Commentaries, Middle Way Philosophy), part of Nagarjuna’s project was to prove the impossibility of any phenomenon being permeant, having intrinsic, i.e., self-supported or self-sustaining, existence. While establishing the concept of the Two Truths (an ultimate “emptiness reality” underpinning all phenomena, with our perceptions of everyday conventional reality forming the basis of our understanding of dependent arising, which explains perceived phenomena and allows conceptual access to ultimate reality, Nagarjuna spends almost no time discussing the nature of objects and other phenomena.
Vasubandhu’s Three Natures is not in conflict with these principles, but instead fills in the details. Do objects exist? Contextually we should understand that for Nagarjuna, it seems that they do in some conventional sense, and result from the four conditions, but it is still unclear why a particular object exists at a particular time and place, or, in “Nagarjunian” terms, why any certain set of conditions combine rather than some other set of conditions.
Andy does not see Nagarjuna answering these questions about how particular objects exist or how they result from conditions and which conditions those conditions might be when he examines the Nagarjuna texts. But Carl suggests that for Nagarjuna, the implication if not stated explicitly, conditions are “stories” we appeal to explain other stories—other people, places, things, events, etc. Thus karma is largely determinant, because our karma is what determines the content of the stories that become the conditions that define what exists for us in our conventional narratives about what is happening. These karmic propensities are determinants, not in a permanent sense but in a potential way, in how we style and create conditioned phenomena—how we create stories.
Vasubandhu provides an answer to this too, but differently. With Vasubandhu’s insight that all objects and other phenomena depend on a mind, i.e., it is one of their natures (the so-called “other-dependent nature”), without which the object could not exist. In this way, the presence of a mind seems to be something like a fifth condition, added to the four established by Nagarjuna to explain how any phenomenon arises. The mind itself is an empty object, like all other objects, and has the same three natures as all other objects/phenomena and together, the mind and all other conditions allow the continuous flow of dependent arising.
It is important to note that this treatise does not argue for mind-only, but assumes it. Buddhist theories of mind-only postulate that human beings and all phenomena lack entityhood and “exist” only as the psychological constituents and processes which comprise them. In other words, how we imagine them is how they exist—regardless of whether there is an external entity to corroborate them. The question of whether there is or is not an external physical reality is, from a Buddhist perspective, a distraction—an afflictive distraction from learning how to process an understanding of the world so that we are reducing our suffering. Western philosophers are looking for some ultimate reality, some external truth; Buddhism is not and sees the search for a reified universe as afflictive and as inhibiting us from following the path to lessen our suffering.
Here we see diagrammatically the critical point of the treatise, that the intersection of all three is wisdom, or liberation from suffering:
Each of the three natures has, as you might guess, a variety of terms and phrases, used by a variety of different scholars, to translate it. To give you a better understanding of what might be meant by each, they are the various translation: (1) the “imagined” or “fabricated” or “constructed” or “imputed” nature, (2) the “other-dependent” or “dependent” or “co-dependent” as one of our students like to call it–nature, and (3) the “consummate” or “perfected” or “fulfilled” or “completed” nature. Here, for the sake of consistency, since we use Jay Garfield’s translation of the text, we will use his terms: (1) imagined, (2) other-dependent, and (3) consummate.
As we can see in the diagram above, to discover that an entity has more than one distinct nature, is to discover that that entity is “unreal,” is lacking a permanent existence, a self-nature from its side. Exhibiting multiple natures also indicates that there is no single, ultimate reality to entities. All phenomena are such three-natured entities, and Vasubandhu includes Self as a phenomenon in this understanding. All three are (1) conceptual fabrications, mental imputations, cognitive concoctions, (2) created in the “Middle Way” through a dependent arising, which indicates that (3) they lack entityhood from their side because they arise from the consummate, unitary nature that underpins all phenomena.
So the Imagined Nature is the thing as it seems to be; it is the world of everyday experience and mental appearances. The Other-Dependent nature is the process by which the arising of the Imagined Nature occurs. That’s how the first two natures are bound together. Finally, the Consummate Nature is things as they are in themselves, as a singularity, with no subject/object duality.
For Vasubandhu, to say that something is non-dual is to say that it is both conceptually non-dual and perceptually non-dual. So the Consummate Nature, which is deduced from understanding the first two natures, is non-dual, and the dichotomy of perception into perceiver and perceived is actually a conceptual fabrication, meaning imagined and unreal. All three natures are therefor imagined. Thus we see the delusion that causes our suffering, this false bifurcation, and the path to freedom from suffering, which is realizing the unreality of the imagined through understanding the three natures.
- The first nature is the Imagined Nature, which is the everyday world as we understand it.
- The second nature is the Other–Dependent Nature, which Vasubandhu defines as the “causal” process of the thing’s fabrication, the causal story that brings about the imagined thing’s apparent nature—its middle way arising. This is the “how to; it couples natures one and two and emphasizes that both are simply imagined.
- The third nature, the Consummate Nature, is the lack of duality. It is a singularity—the fact that the Imagined Nature and the Other-Dependent Natures do not exist as they appear, but rather exist in “as things are,” with no subject/object distinction.
Put differently, the Imagined Nature exists as a designation, and the Other-Dependent nature exists as perception. In its imagined form, the imagining appears to us as independent and autonomous and as wholly other than an event in the mind that apprehends it. But these phenomena actually arise in an other-dependent, relational way, which is their second nature. When we examine them closely, we see that the subject (me here)-object (it there) duality imaginings of the first two natures disappear in the third nature, the Consummate Nature, the non-existent emptiness of all phenomena, the singularity that subsumes the duality of the first two natures.
We are to understand that to say that “I” exists is to conceptually divide the world into self and other, a false construct. Just the same, to say that an observed object is separate from the observer is also to impute a false conception into the world.
Again, these self-natures are also called the Three Non-self-natures, since they lack fixed, independent, permanent identities and thus shouldn’t be hypostatized. The Imagined Nature is intrinsically unreal; the Consummate Nature intrinsically ’empty’; and the Other-Dependent (which finally is the only ‘real’ one) is of unfixed nature since it can be ‘mixed’ with either of the other two.
We have been deliberately repetitive here in the hopes that the repetition, each time from a slightly different perspective, will help the reader notice that the first nature is intrinsically unreal; the third intrinsically empty; and the second (which is the only “real” one) is of unfixed nature since it can be mixed with either of the other two. So as diagrammed above, 1 and 3 overlap, and 2 overlaps with both, so all three combine to provide us with wisdom. Again, we see the delusion that believing any one or two are solid and autonomous causes our suffering, and that the path to freedom from suffering is the realization of all three in simultaneity.
In the penultimate fifth section of the treatise Vasubandhu proffers a playful simile of a magician who uses a magic spell (dependent nature, conceptual construction) to make a piece of wood (the consummate, non-duality) look like an elephant (fabricated nature, duality). This illustrates the basic problem for living beings who suffer, which is that they are fooled by the illusion of duality into thinking that it is real, that self and other exists. Wisdom is seeing through this illusion.
As we have said, it is important to notice that the three natures theory provides us with a model for understanding how suffering arises, meaning how we create our suffering with “buy-in” to this false duality, and at the same time with a theory that leads us to understand what we need to do for suffering to cease, which is to stop believing things exist as we image them through understanding their relationship to dependent arising and to their consummate nature. As we approach a complete understanding of the three natures, we release ourselves from the delusion of Self and other, delusion of the distinction between subject and object. As this happens, phenomena are known as they really are and suffering reduces and ends.
That’s basically what you can expect from the text of this great treatise. An explication that addresses, with brevity and clarity (though this is no simple matter) the fundamental aspects of Yogacara Buddhism, which are that all external appearances are merely projections of a dualistic mind and originate in our karma. Karma being our bank of experiences that determine how we create our environment and world, and the theory of Three Natures, the unity of which leads to wisdom and liberation from suffering.
Nagarjuna vs. Vasubandhu: As already mentioned above, Nagarjuna laid the foundation for much of the Mind-Only school, and as we have dedicated a large portion of this site to Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy, it seems appropriate to explain the fundamental difference between these two great philosophers’ idea about emptiness. Nagarjuna explains the ultimate truth, emptiness, as a lack of permanence, i.e., a lack of inherent essence or substantial, independent reality—to all things, internal and external, including the mind. Vasubandhu, on the other hand, explains the consummate nature, emptiness, as a lack of external reality, and explains that its purely mind-dependent, dualistic (perceive/perceived or subject/object) status where the consummate is a singularity, lacking the subject/object duality.
From a practice perspective, it would be best if we could understand how all things have these three natures, and how they arise in an interconnected way when a phenomenon appears. But that full an understanding isn’t necessary to practice with the three natures concept in a meaningful way. Just understanding that everything is imagined is enough to shift the whole way we process the events of our lives and to lead us to a distinctly more peaceful explanation of how things really are. As we delve into the text, how to practice with it will become clearer.
Note on Chapter Divisions: The original text was written as 38 consecutive verses, or quatrains, without any breaks or divisions. We have divided these 38 verses are into six groupings, similar to those used by Garfield in his commentary (see Ancient Texts). Textually, these are natural break points and we have used them as chapter divisions and have assigned each a title. This, we believe, makes it easier to navigate and understand the treatise.
Annotated Table of Contents
The Three Natures, Verses 1-6
In the opening verses, Vasubandhu names, defines, and begins to explore the relationship of the three natures of all phenomena. The first nature is the imagined nature, which is the phenomenon as it appears to be—a person, place, process, event, thing which is out there in a seemingly independent, autonomous way. This is its nature as it might be defined and explained in everyday language. The second nature is the other-dependent nature, the “middle way” nature, in which phenomena arise in interdependent relationships, here being the subject/object or perceiver/perceived duality. The perceived duality, i.e., the existence of perceiver and the perceived, links the first and second natures; the process of the second creating the first and implying that both are imagined. The third nature, the consummate nature, is the emptiness of the first two natures—the fact that any phenomenon we are imagining is unreal, that it does not exist as it appears. Vasubandhu concludes this section by explaining the relationship of the three natures to each other: anything that appears doesn’t actually exist in the way we are conceiving it; rather it appears as a duality, which means it is non-existent in an autonomous, independent way. And the consequence of this is “the fact of nonduality!”
Put another way, in the first nature the “object” is imagined to be objectively existent, autonomous and independent. In the second nature, we realize “subject” and “object” are a constructed, not independent, duality. We note too that both arise from afflicted thinking, misperceptions of how things are, which is other-dependent. With the inclusion of the third nature, Vasubandhu has united that the first two natures as a singularity, showing that they don’t exist. WOW, and we’re just out of the gate!
The Character of Mind, Verses 7-9
Mind, like everything else, has the three natures described in Chapter One, but it also has three characteristics to its illusory Self, adding to the delusion that mind is somehow “more real” than other phenomena. Those are (1) being fully ripened, (2) conceived of as other than oneself, and (3) being an appearance. Vasubandhu explains that these three characteristics, when merged together, make phenomena appear as independent and autonomous things with no relationship to us or our senses, so they falsely appear to exist from their side alone. The observation of these characteristics is a soteriological device, a pedagogic instrument, a tool used to help people lessen and end suffering.
Right View of Dualities, Verses 10-21
Here we learn that all perceived phenomena have three distinct dual characteristics, meaning that each of the three natures has these three dual qualities: being existent and nonexistent, being dual and singular, and being afflicted (a source of suffering) and nonafflicted. And all of these simultaneously. Nearly a third of the treatise (11 of the 38 verses) is dedicated to presenting and explaining this profoundly important concept and its relationships. The chapter concludes with an explanation of the ways in which these are the same as each other and the ways in which they are different from each other.
Hierarchy of the Natures, Verses 22-26
This chapter starts by asserting that the best way to learn the Three Natures, in the deep and profound way that will significantly lessen and even eliminate much of our suffering, is hierarchically. The chapter starts by telling us to learn them in sequence: starting with the imagined nature, then going to the other-dependent nature, and finally studying them through the lens of the consummate. But there is a hiccup here, as Verse Twenty-Five tells us that it might be easier to grasp the meaning of the three if we explore other-dependent as a way of understanding imagined, and easier to grasp if understand that those two (imagined and other-dependent) can be a way of getting to the consummate, which is about the lack of duality in the first two natures.
The Elephant Simile, Verses 27-34
Vasubandhu’s famous simile explaining the three natures appears in this chapter where the three natures are analogized to a magician producing an illusion of an elephant, using a piece of wood and a magical spell.
The problem, this analogy asserts, is not that we experience an illusory world; the problem is that we are fooled into accepting the reality of our perceptions and our concepts as real, which is the source of our suffering. Once we no longer believe, once we see the falsity of the illusion, the illusion goes away and we can come to experience the truth that lies behind the illusion—the ineffable “suchness” that the piece of wood represents.
Conclusion, Verses 35-38
The concluding four verses remind us that, when we understand the Three Natures profoundly, we stop seeing Self and Other as independent, and rather see both as perceptual delusions. This causes us to cease craving and clinging (for there is nothing, not even our minds or us) onto which we can attach. The result is a life of benefit to others, a life without suffering on our part from our misguided perceptions.
The Three Natures Treatise (the Trisvabhāvanirdeśa)
Introduction to the Three Natures, Verses 1-6
1. The imagined, the other-dependent and
These are the three natures
Which should be deeply understood
2. Arising through dependence on conditions and
Existing through being imagined,
It is therefore called other-dependent
And is said to be merely imaginary.
3. The eternal nonexistence
Of what appears in the way it appears,
Since it is never otherwise,
Is known as the nature of the consummate.
4. If anything appears, it is imagined.
The way it appears is as duality.
What is the consequence of its nonexistence?
The fact of nonduality!
5. What is the imagination of the nonexistent?
Since what is imagined absolutely never
Exists in the way it is imagined,
It is mind that constructs that illusion.
6. Because it is a cause and an effect,
The mind has two aspects.
As the foundation consciousness it creates thought;
Known as the emerged consciousness it has seven aspects.
Right out of the gate, with the first verse of this treatise, Vasubandhu—here having attained his most mature thinking—wants us to recognize that all phenomena are mental constructs, objects imagined by us, which leads us to understand that this treatise is an exploration of the nature of phenomena so conceived. At this point it is important to remember that Vasubandhu assumes that the reader is familiar with and accepts the “mind only” nature of perception and reality. This treatise is an elaboration of the mind only concept, detailing its necessary implications with respect to the emptiness of all phenomena.
With that reminder, let’s begin as Vasubandhu does by labeling and defining the three natures. These are briefly described in the Introduction, so please read that before tackling the more detailed explanations below.
The first nature is the imagined nature, which is the thing as it appears to be through our imaginations. Alternative translations include the “fabricated” or “constructed” or “imputed” nature. This happens in the delusional, cognitively constructed realm of self and other, which is unreal and which posits inherent, permanent essences or selfs in us, other beings, and other things. Of course, to use this term is to indicate the acceptance that things, phenomena, do not really exist the way they appear. This is a phenomenon’s nature as it might be defined and explained in ordinary everyday language, but with the added proviso which is that we all understand this is not really how things are naturally.
For example, the thing in the terra cotta pot on my desk, I image that to be a “green plant.” But there is no such thing as green in the universe: green is simply a conventionally agreed upon word or label, and concept for a particular wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum reaching my eye and being refracted and focused onto the retina, where the light is selectively detected and absorbed by special photoreceptor cells, known as rods and cones, and then processed to be understood and labeled conceptually as “green.” So I just imagine the plant to be green. (If I spoke Turkish, it would be imaged as “yeşil.”) In fact, I also imagine the thing in the pot to be a plant. These cognitive constructions reify phenomena, and us, in a deluded way that posits them as having independent self-natures, and me as being independent with a self-nature of my own as well. In other words, I don’t see the plant as imagined, rather I conceive of it as something “over there” and completely separate from me, who is “over here.” Once we realize that everything is imagined and not present in the way it is being imagined and apprehended, we understand that we can end our suffering by changing our imagined concepts and our karmic preconceptions. Instead of believing that “someone cut me off in traffic,” which is what my mind is imaging happened, I realize that I can imagine what happened differently. I can perceive the event as simply “someone has changed lanes, I need to slow down and put some space between our cars.” The former leaves me annoyed or angry, the latter leaves me comfortable and peaceful. (As a quick aside, students often ask about the relationship of Buddhism to creativity. The short answer is that creativity is only possible because of the imagined nature of phenomena.) The second nature is the other-dependent nature, which Vasubandhu defines, in verse two, as the causal process of the thing’s fabrication, the causal story that brings about the thing’s imagined or apparent nature. To be clear, the other dependent natures is not Nagarjuna’s dependent arising, but is more specifically the subject/object duality, the perceiver/perceived duality. In verse two he writes that the second nature arises “through dependence on conditions and [exists] through being imagined.” We can see from this that this second nature is the realm of causal dependency, the casual relationship where the self is necessary to create/perceive any and all external things, for without the self we couldn’t see that thing “over there” as existing apart from the self – without a Self there would be no perspective possible to perceive any external phenomenon. When mixed with the imagined realm this leads one to mistake the products of the interrelatedness of seemingly “causal” conditions for fixed, permanent entities. These are other-dependent in the sense that they exist only through dependence upon our mind and its dualistic processes. The third nature is the consummate nature, which is the emptiness of the first nature—the fact that it is unreal, neither existent nor non-existent, and that it certainly does not exist as it appears. It is sometimes translated as the “perfected” or “absolute” nature. This third nature functions like Nagarjuna’s “emptiness” to remove all traces of reified thinking and cognition. It is an antidote that yanks our imagined, delusional constructions out of the causal realm, providing a path to end our suffering. Altogether, what we loosely call “the outside world,” according to Vasubandhu, is totally a reflection of our inner imaginings. By “totally” we mean that it doesn’t matter whether something does or doesn’t exist in the external world, it has simply arisen as something in our imagined way. In fact, our imaginings are projected onto the world, creating and interpreting everything, including us, and creating an external world to match our deluded internal world. Thus nothing is as it seems.
In the third verse, Vasubandhu connects the first and second natures to the third, turning everything into a neat little package. Here’s how: the imagined nature is the world of everyday experience with its mental imaginings. Dependent nature is the dependently co-arisen nature and process of those imaginings, while the consummate nature is things as they are, with no subject/ object distinction; the nonexistence of the apparent reality is the consummate nature of all phenomena.
Verse four hits us over the head with the final idea that anything which appears doesn’t actually exist in the way we are conceiving it. Rather, the way it appears is as a duality, meaning it cannot independently exist, but neither is it non-existent. And the consequence of this is “the fact of nonduality!”
Thus whatever appears to us as an object, as a phenomenon, as a person, place, thing, process, event, or state, does so in its imagined nature. In its imagined form, the imagining appears to us as independent and autonomous and as wholly other than the mind that apprehends it. These phenomena are merely nominal, or nominal and conceptual, but actually arise in an other-dependent way (the second nature). Again, they are nothing more or less than mere, nominal representations, as we see when we examine them from the three natures perspective in which all subject-object duality disappears in the third “consummate” nature.
Verse five reiterates what was expressed in the previous four verses: that there is a tight connection between our understanding of a phenomenon as imagined and its dependence on our mind to be imagined. As Garfield points out, “Since the imagined nature is in fact totally imaginary, it does not arise from the side of the thing that appears. Rather, it is an artifact of the operation of the mind.”
In the final verse of this section, verse six, Vasubandhu moves on from defining terms and concepts to explain how the subject/object nature of mind means that it is both the cause and the effect of a perceived phenomenon. He sums up how things are mind-fabricated. The mind (the “storehouse” or “alaya” consciousness), he explains, functions as the condition from which thoughts, for the imagined nature and other-dependent nature, arise. This is where all the information is stored that provides the building blocks of our thoughts, our narratives, for the imagined and other-dependent natures. In addition, Vasubandhu explains that we have seven “emerged consciousnesses.” Through these emerged consciousnesses, which emerge when we make sense contacts, the mind arises as the object of introspection, which apprehends the Self as a separate object that is conditioned both by external phenomena that appear in our perception and by its own-generated phenomena.
What is not emphasized enough, we believe, in the commentarial literature, is that everything, on every level, is imagined. Each of the three natures arises from our imagination, yes, but it is more complicated than that. The imagined nature is the phenomenon we are perceiving. The other-dependent nature, too, is completely imagined, though it is how we are creating the imaginary phenomenon, rather than the phenomenon itself. And even how things exist in a singularity, the consummate nature, is imagined as it is a product of mind. In mind, everything is perceived by an imaginary perceiver, perceiving (which is an imaginary function) the perceived, which is an imaginary object of the perceiver perceiving. Everything is an imaginary duality, even the consummate singularity.
When Carl looks at the green plant on his desk, he imagines there is a plant in front of him that is separate and independent from him. That’s the imagined phenomenon—the object in philosophic jargon. The object, of course, is completely imaginary, for there is no such thing as “green” in nature, nor plant for that matter, but we’ll stick with green for this example. As explained in the Introduction above, “green” is just a conventionally agreed upon label for a particular band of light contacting our eye. So, there is no such thing as greenness, except in our imagination. In order for Carl to see the green, he has to imagine that there is a Carl, a person who is seeing; Carl imagines that he is a definite and separate Self. This Self is called the subject in philosophic jargon, and is also completely imagined. So the phenomenon, in its subject/object relationship, doesn’t exist except in Carl’s imagination, in his mind, which is also completely imaginary.
What Carl sees isn’t what is there, what Carl sees he imagines because he has an explanatory need to create it and because he has imprints in his alaya consciousness which came from previous real or imaginary sense contacts. This is important—for the external world is purely a projection of one’s internal world, nothing more or less. The phenomenon and its perceiver are only apparently there. Many people walk into Carl’s office, but most never see the plant. Why? Because they see the paperwork or the computer, or Carl, and they “see” what’s on Carl’s desk, they imagine it, because they have a need to use those papers or objects.
Everyone who comes into the office sees a different “imagined” office. Some see the plant, some never see the plant. Thus the world is a figment of our imagination, imagined in three ways (natures) from our confused understanding of how things are, and imagined based solely on our explanatory needs and language. In addition, changing conditions play an important role here. Conditions, such as why we are in Carl’s office, or where we are in the office, are also informing and shaping our sense of Self and Other. There is a constant if slight shifting in how our opinions and views are creating our imaginary objects. Those opinions and sense of self operate through seven aspects—the five sensory inputs, the sense of “Self” observing, and what Garfield calls the “reflective consciousness of the transcendental subject of experience.” (An amusing bit of sesquipedalian verbiage for the word plant.)
Practice Notes: If we deeply believed what Vasubandhu is saying here, that nothing exists in the way we are thinking about it, that nothing is real in the way it appears—independent of us and having a self-nature, “from its side,” if we understood this down to our marrow, then we would be liberated. Why? Because the everyday fictions we experience that allow us to navigate the world would be believed to be utterly imaginary, unreal and untrue, though perhaps somewhat useful, and so there would be no craving for them, no grasping after them, no attaching. This would not only be true of what we imagine outside of ourselves, but equally importantly, it would leave us understanding that there is no Self. Craving for and clinging to Self is the major source of suffering. Practicing with the three natures is simply a matter of self-regulation with serious attention to one’s internal self-talk. Whenever we are upset, anything from mildly irritated or annoyed to furious and raging, we recognize the upsetness as a signal for us to say to ourselves—I am just imaging all this, none of it is real, and I am just imagining my discomfort from it, for there is no solid and autonomous Me, really, to be upset. That will weaken most any imagined event that is disturbing.
The Character of Mind, Verses 7-9
7. The first, because it collects the seeds
Of suffering is called “mind.”
The second, because of the constant emergence
Of the various aspects of things is so called.
8. One should think of the illusory nonexistent
Completely ripened, grasped as other,
And as appearance.
9. The first, because it itself ripens,
Is the root consciousness.
The others are emergent consciousness,
Having emerged from the conceptualization of seer and seen.
Mind, like everything else, has the three natures described in Chapter One, but it also has three characteristics to its “illusory nonexistence.” Together these seem to make phenomena falsely appear to exist from their side alone, as somehow completely independent of us or our sense or perceptions.
In Verse Seven Vasubandhu asserts that our first understanding of “the mind” be that it is our karma (not an independent entity; rather the collection of our “seeds”); it is the collection of imprints (we prefer imprints to seeds as the seed analogy falters since an agricultural seed can only sprout once, whereas our karmic imprints are used over and over whenever conditions support their arising) we have accumulated from every act of body, speech, and thought; it is our alaya consciousness or storehouse. This collection of imprints is the source of our suffering because all imprints, when ripened, cause us to want more of the things the imprints have an affinity for (which is greedy, to say the least) or fewer of the things we are aversive to (again greediness). This reminds us that the reason Vasubandhu wrote this treatise was not to display his intellectualism to his Buddhist friends and opponents, but to give us a model for ending our suffering.
Further explaining the mind, Vasubandhu says that experientially, the three characteristics of the mind are (1) “completely ripened,” meaning that the mind is a fully developed object based on what had been a dormant imprint or imprints in our consciousness and now is a fully developed phenomenon; (2) Since mind appears as an object, it is “grasped as other,” meaning it seems to be separate from the Self to which it appears; and (3) the final of these three characteristics is that mind arises as an “appearance,” meaning as something we have imagined, and not something independent of our mind in all its aspects.
To say that an object is mentally fabricated (imagined) is not to say it is merely a hallucination since any object of experience is constructed this way. Rather, it is to say that the fabricated nature is misleading because, in normal experience, we do not experience objects as mental fabrications, but as having their own self-supported existences.
A slight elaboration occurs in the final verse of this chapter which explains that our “ripened consciousness,” our storehouse consciousness, is associated with our nonexistent Self (the subject) while the emergent consciousnesses are largely associated with external appearances (the object), which are likewise nonexistent.
Practice Notes: First, there is practicing with characteristics themselves, and second, there is practicing with knowledge that we are misperceiving and misunderstanding phenomena because of the mistaken way their imagined nature appears to us mentally. My Self and my mind, are disguising things, misleading me– forcefully leading me into a world of suffering. My Self and my mind are the source of my suffering, not the solution to it as much of Western philosophy and psychotherapy asserts.
This chapter is reminding us that anything which is characterized into its imagined nature is not there as it appears. It is only a thought, an idea, imagined by our dualistic mind which makes our imagined phenomena appear as real and separate from us. So just knowing a phenomenon, a thought or idea or belief, is able to be characterized means it is foolish for us to believe it exists as it appears, foolish for us to crave or cling or attach to it.
Second, this chapter is telling us to recognize that when we are suffering over a concept or opinion or idea or thought, that concept is illusory, and the way it is constructed is illusory as comes wholly from my karma. Remember, Vasubandhu is fully mind-only, so he wants us to deconstruct conditions through our mental processes. And any serious deconstruction here shows that all of our suffering results from our dualistic perceptions, and all dualistic perceptions, whether of Self or other phenomena, are sourced in our ever-changing karma, our alaya consciousness.
So if we are upset because we dislike our mayor or governor or even President, we need to realize that one’s upsetedness is the result of one’s karma and the way we fabricate narratives about what to believe and what to do, far more than of anything any of these officials might do or have done.
Indeed, we suffer because of the way we dualistically imagine our Self and the world, and because of our karma, the dualistic imprints that govern our consciousness and determine the content of our illusory life. We can intervene in this process through meditation and metacognitive (see Our Commentaries, Introduction, Metacognitive Voice) observation to lessen the unhelpful additions to our karmic storehouses. We can actually become skillful enough at intervening that we can reduce the impact of our past karma on how we respond to conditions in the world here and now.
Right View of Dualities, Verses 10-21
10. Existence and nonexistence, duality and unity;
Freedom from affliction and afflicted;
Through characteristics, and through distinctions,
These natures are known to be profound.
11. Since it appears as existent
Though it is nonexistent,
The imagined nature
Is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.
12. Since it exists as an illusory entity
And is nonexistent in the way it appears
The other-dependent nature
Is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.
13. Since it is the nonexistence of duality
And exists as nonduality
The consummate nature
Is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.
14. Moreover, since as imagined there are two aspects,
But existence and nonexistence are unitary,
The nature imagined by the ignorant
Is said to be both dual and unitary.
15. Since as an object of thought it is dual,
But as a mere appearance it is unitary,
The other-dependent nature
Is said to be both dual and unitary.
16. Since it is the essence of dual entities
And is a unitary nonduality,
The consummate nature
Is said to be both dual and unitary.
17. The imagined and the other-dependent
Are said to be characterized by misery (due to ignorant craving).
The consummate is free of
The characteristic of desire.
18. Since the former has the nature of a false duality
And the latter is the nonexistence of that nature,
The imagined and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
19. Since the former has the nature of nonduality,
And the latter has the nature of nonexistent duality,
The consummate and the imagined
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
20. Since the former is deceptive in the way it appears,
And the latter has the nature of its not being that way,
The other-dependent and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
21. Since the former has the nature of a nonexistent duality,
And the latter is its nonexistence in the way it appears,
The other-dependent and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic.
Vasubandhu starts this section of the treatise with some familiar declarations: all phenomena are existent and nonexistent, and dual and nondual, simultaneously. But then he adds: “Freedom from affliction and afflicted”. What he means by this last duality (freedom from affliction/affliction) is that our ignorance regarding the nature of things, in which we believe the nature of things to be inherently and autonomously existent in the way we are apprehending it, rather than it being an empty singularity, make both subject and object afflicted and so sources of suffering.
Simply put, this chapter is explaining that there are three dual sets of characteristics to each of the Three Natures: existent and nonexistent, dual and unitary, and afflicted and nonafflicted.
Let’s use the plant on Carl’s desk as an example as we examine the verses that explain this.
Existent and Nonexistent. In its Imagined Nature, the plant seems to exist, in an ordinary everyday way, as an object on the desk that is separate from me and my mind. It is imagined to exist “from its own side.” But as explained in verse eleven, though the plant is imagined to exist, once we scrutinize this idea, we discover that it is imagined as existent but not really existent as it is simply a concept in my mind. The plant could not exist without my mind, which assembles the other necessary dependent elements to construct the plant. So it exists in my mind but doesn’t really exist; it is existent and nonexistent. Thus the final line of Verse Eleven, “[It] is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.”
From the perspective of the Other-Dependent Nature, the plant exists as an entity dependent on my mind. So it exists as a mental construct, but because it depends on my mind for its existence, it does not really exist independently. Thus the final line of Verse Twelve, “[It] is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.”
From the perspective of the Consummate Nature, these dualities vanish, for the plant is a mind-only illusion. So the apparent plant becomes utterly nonexistent. This utter nonduality is the consummate nature of the plant. So in its consummate nature, the nonexistence of the plant as dual is its true existence as a singularity. Thus the final line of Verse Thirteen, “[It] is said to have the characteristics of existence and nonexistence.”
In all three natures, the plant is existent and nonexistent, depending on one’s perspective. For the ignorant, the imagined is the nature of the plant—that’s how it is characterized and made distinct from other things or people. But for the wise, who have penetrated deeply into this understanding of the imagined nature of all phenomena, as both there in our imagination but not there in a self-existent way, there is a sharp curtailing of craving, clinging, and suffering. When we develop this kind of wisdom, the plant is experienced in a peaceful (nonafflicted) way.
Duality and Nonduality. Concluding the discussion of the imagined nature, Vasubandhu explains in Verse Fourteen that because the plant is both existent and nonexistent, for the ignorant, for those who lack an understanding of how things really are, it is experienced as a duality (subject/object; existent/nonexistent) and a source of suffering. However, for the wise, those accomplished in understanding the Three Natures, the Imaginary Nature is seen nondually too, as a singularity, as its consummate self, and so this perspective is relieving of affliction and discomfort and suffering.
Verse Fifteen, which describes the Other-Dependent Nature, falls right in line with the reasoning of the Imaginary Nature in Verse Fourteen: the plant, experienced Other-Dependently, as an object of thought, depends on the mind which has concocted it (dually; as subject/object) and yet, for the wise, it is also a nondual singularity. Again, when wisely viewed from its Other-Dependent Nature, there is a relief of suffering.
In the final verse on duality and nonduality, Vasubandhu quickly explains that the unity of duality and nonduality is the Consummate Nature: fabricated by the mind, phenomena are dual, but seen from their consummate side, phenomena lack duality and so are nondual. Reducing our suffering comes about when we realize deeply and profoundly that the Consummate Nature’s lack of Self/Other duality is its unitariness, and that lightens our load and acts, when combined with the other two natures, as the raft to a more peaceful life.
Unification of the Three Natures. The final four verses here explain how the Three Natures, though they seem so distinct and different from each other, are really identical.
Because phenomena are imagined as having an affinity or an aversion, things in their Imagined Nature and in their Other-Dependent Nature are sources of suffering since they appear due to our ignorance, our grasping for Self and clinging and attachment to things perceived by a Self. The Consummate Nature, on the other hand, is free of desire, free of greed, and like the emptiness Nagarjuna described in Middle Way Philosophy, it is “pacific.”
In Verses Eighteen and Nineteen Vasubandhu begins to explain the relationship between the Imagined Nature and the Consummate Nature. The Imagined Nature is dual—meaning Subject/Object, Self/Other, Perceiver/Perceived dual. When we realize it is merely imagined, the duality become nonexistent. And this nonexistence of the duality is precisely its Consummate Nature. If they are not different from one another, then the apparent distinction between them is just one of perspective, our point of view in examining them, and not one in reality.
Verse Twenty asserts that the dependent nature is deceptive because things that are dependent appear to be distinct when they are not. They are, in fact, dependent on the Subject and merely mental. To be merely mental is to be nondifferent from the mind on which the phenomena depends. That same understanding is the Consummate Nature. So the Imagined and the Consummate are the same.
- Since the former has the nature of a nonexistent duality,
And the latter is its nonexistence in the way it appears,
The other-dependent and the consummate
Are said not to be different in characteristic,
Since the Other-Dependent is a nonexistent duality, and using the same rationale as above, the Consummate is a non-existent duality, they are the same—not different in characteristic.
An additional duality is that between ignorant view and wise view. As with the other natures, this itself is both dual and unitary. On the one hand, one may consider viewing “existent,” “dual,” and “afflicted” natures as ignorant, while “non-existent,” “unitary,” and “non-afflicted” are wise. However, it would be more accurate to say that an ignorant view fails to comprehend the duality of the natures, while the wise view perceives the duality of the natures and the validity of both natures.
From an andragogical perspective, the more different ways we have at looking at material like this treatise, the better we will come to understand it. So, here’s a run-through of these three dualities from a student who has scrutinized them using bullets, after which we will present the same concepts more graphically:
- Existent/Non-Existent: The imagined nature exists as a perception and an imaginary object that is perceived as being separate from the Self. The perception certainly exists, however, the imagined nature does not exist in the way it is being perceived. That is, the Self perceives it as existing independently and in a reified sense, but the imagined nature does not exist in that way. Thus, the imaginary nature exists in one sense, but not in the sense that the self normally perceives.
- Dual/Unitary: As just discussed, the imagined nature can be described as both existent and non-existent. That is a dual nature. However, the difference is simply one of perspective. A wise view of the imaginary nature accepts that both views are valid and are describing the same mental construct, which is therefore of a unitary nature.
- Afflicted/Non-Afflicted: Although not specifically discussed in the verses, the treatise is practice focused. Hence, the goal is to explain a world view that will be non-afflicted. One may consider viewing “existent” and “dual” perceptions as afflicted, and “non-existent” and “unitary” views as non-afflicted (one could also substitute the words “ignorant” and “wise” for “afflicted” and “non-afflicted”). This would be useful, but a further step is to note that afflicted and non-afflicted also display dual and unitary natures. The wise, non-afflicted view is not to reject the dual nature and perceive only a unitary nature, it is to understand that both perceptions exist and to understand the relationship between them. That is, the non-afflicted view does not replace a perception of the imagined nature, for example, but understands that that view both exists (in one sense) and does not exist (in another sense), and that that is a form of duality, but one with a common element in that they are different ways of understanding the imagined nature.
Another way to think about this duality would be as conventional understanding and perception of emptiness. Conventional understanding has its place, and knowing that that understanding is empty does not negate the usefulness of the conventional understanding, but it creates a world view where the processing of the conventional understanding does not create affliction, as the student understands that the conventional understanding does not actually exist in the way that it is perceived.
- Existent/Non-Existent: The Self perceives the object as distinct from the Self. That perception exists. However, there is in fact no independent object (and, in fact, n independent self). Only the perception itself exists. Further, the perception arises in dependence upon the overall context of the mental processes, prior interactions, and sensory inputs. That perception—the process—is certainly other dependent and an example of dependent arising. However, the subject of the perception does not exist in an independent way (or at all in any verifiable or meaningful way), but as a unity.
- Dual/Unitary: The self perceives the object as distinct from the self. That is duality. But in fact, the object is a mental creation of the self and is not independent of the self. Thus, the two are, in fact, unitary – the supposed self and the perceived object are both simply assembled out of other similarly non-intrinsically existent materials.
- Afflicted/Non-Afflicted: As before, while it is correct to say that simply perceiving the object as distinct from the self and independently existing will lead to affliction, that is only the case when that is the sole perception. The non-afflicted view does not reject either view, but embraces both as a unity. Understanding both and their relationship is the key to non-affliction.
- Existent/Non-Existent: Vasubandhu’s description of the consummate nature as dual is a rhetorical stretch. However, following from the discussion of afflicted and non-afflicted, the consummate nature is a recognition of the dual natures of existence and non-existence while understanding that both natures are simultaneously valid and invalid. That is, the consummate nature in one aspect states that the imagined nature both exists and non-exists, and in the other aspect states that the imagined nature neither exists nor non-exists. Both approaches reach the same place, but emphasize the importance of perception, and how our mental constructs can be viewed in more than one way.
- Dual/Unitary: Understanding the different ways the fundamental natures can be viewed and the relationship of those views is a source of duality in the consummate nature. The relationship can be thought of as unitary, while the dual underlying natures are still regarded as valid. That is, the consummate nature recognizes that the dual natures are both valid, but reconciles that duality by explaining the relationship between the two and that there is in fact no contradiction between them.
- Afflicted/Non-Afflicted: The Consummate Nature does not have an afflicted nature, which may explain, as we said, why Vasubandhu does not use afflicted/non-afflicted in the parallel construction of the verses. The Consummate Nature is characterized by an understanding of duality and how that duality is reconciled to a unitary nature. The afflicted mental state is a lack of understanding of the Consummate Nature.
Hence, in each case, the key to non-afflicted world view is to understand both natures (existent/non-existent and dual/unitary) and their relationship to each other.
Now, let’s look at these same concepts graphically: three verses are dedicated to the existent/nonexistent dualism of the Three Natures. In tandem, three verses are dedicated to the dual/unitary dualism of the Three Natures. But the afflicted/nonafflicted dualism gets barely a mention, so we constructed the table below as though it conformed to the three verse pattern. In addition, we have added a soteriological overlay to the charting below, as strongly implied by the text. Finally, note that the Consummate Nature is a tautology—being fundamentally the same in each of the three dualities. Remember, these are about seeing relationships!
All of these, depending on how you perceive them, appear to exist in one sense, and yet in another sense, not. This is not a contradiction – because they exist and do not exist in different ways. The difference in perspective allows for reconciliation as the consummate.
|It is existent as a perception, as an imaginary object or concept in my mind/but nonexistent in the way it is being perceived, as distinct from me.||It is existent as a representation of how a phenomenon arises as an imagined entity dependent on the mind; but it is nonexistent as an autonomous entity.||It is existent as a nonduality, as a singularity/but nonexistent as a duality. The ignorant believe they are existent in the way they appear and so suffer.
The Consummate nature is that phenomena appear to exist in a dual way, but are nonexistent because they are not dual. The wise understand phenomena’s nonexistence as their Consummate Nature and so reduce their suffering.
|For the ignorant, phenomena exist as a subject/object duality, which is the source of suffering; for the wise phenomena are understood as a unity, thus relieving suffering.||As a duality, for the ignorant, it is an object of thoughts dependent on mind. Yet for the wise, it is seen as a singularity
|The unity of nonduality and duality, a seeming contradiction in terms, is the singular Consummate Nature of phenomena. Understanding this is a path to liberation.|
(This duality is not fully addressed in the text and it seems somewhat forced. It is clear that these are dual, and that there is a unitary nature. Understanding both and their relationship is the unitary, is the Consummate.)
|The way we imagine phenomena, as external and self-supported, is afflicted; it is real in our heads and is affecting our mental state with suffering.
Afflicted = Existent
Nonafflicted = Nonexistent
|Because how things arise in the Middle Way is imagined, it is afflicted. Yet because it is other-dependent, it is also nonafflicted.
Afflicted = Dual
Nonafflicted = Unitary
|As imagined, incorrectly, all phenomena are a source of suffering, meaning afflicted unless their Consummate Nature is perceived in which they are nondual, singular, and empty.
Ignorance (Affliction) is believing the imagined.
Wisdom (Nonaffliction) = Unitary nonduality
There is some question as to why Vasubandhu did not map the Consummate Nature with the Imaginary Nature and Other-Dependent Nature in the treatise, though we have done so here because it does seem to fit and work as a praxis. But we believe that, for such a detail-oriented thinker, not explaining as he did the other two (with three verses for each) must have been deliberate. Commentators, like Garfield, believe it was a structural imperfection, a poetic liberty. If it were deliberate, as we suspect, then the question is why. Perhaps because the Imagined and the Consummate Natures are not different in characteristics, as it says in verse 21. Or perhaps because Vasubandhu wanted us to see the Consummate Nature less conventionally and more ultimately. Or perhaps for some other reason. In any case, wisdom will come when we realize the relationship of these three natures to each other, even if we have slightly different understandings of, or perspectives on them.
Practice Notes: Knowing that what we imagine is existent and at the same time nonexistent, simultaneously dual and unitary, we realize that it is not only what we perceive (its Imaginary Nature), but the way we perceive it (its Other-Dependent Nature), that causes our suffering. So not buying in, or rather realizing it is dual and singular at the same time, means we might not attach and so would lessen our suffering. This is because things don’t exist in the way they appear, so there is a mental distancing, a lack of clinging to the Self that creates the narrative through which attaching occurs. With these dualisms, Vasubandhu skirts nihilism by emphasizing the existence of the conventional as existent in an imaginary way, whereas Nagarjuna, who set the stage for Vasubandhu, really wanted to emphasize the emptiness of all phenomena over the conventional truth and so provided a slippery slope on which many students slide into nihilistic perspectives about phenomena.
Just because we understand that all things arise in our minds doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plant on Carl’s desk next to his computer. From a three-natures understanding, there is a plant, and if it’s to live, for example, it will need to be watered regularly. But this is only one perspective from which to understand the plant—its Imagined Nature. Again, though it is mind-only, it still exists…so no nihilism.
Knowing that everything we perceive exists and does not exist at the same time; that it arises in an imaginary, dependent way; and that it can be a source of affliction or not, makes us realize that we have a choice of how to perceive ourselves and the world we live in. This choice will lead to peacefulness and a life of ease or to affliction and a life of suffering. Again, practicing with the chapter shows us the path to choosing Nonaffliction.
Hierarchy of the Natures, Verses 22-26
22. But conventionally,
The natures are explained in order and
Based on that one enters them
In a particular order, it is said.
23. The imagined is entirely conventional.
The other-dependent is attached to convention.
The consummate, cutting convention,
Is said to be of a different nature.
24. Having first entered into the nonexistence of duality
Which is the dependent, one understands
The nonexistent duality
Which is the imagined
25. Then one enters the consummate.
Its nature is the nonexistence of duality.
Therefore it is explained
To be both existent and nonexistent.
26. These Three Natures
Have the characteristics of being noncognizable and nondual.
One is completely nonexistent; the second is therefore nonexistent.
The third has the nature of that nonexistence.
This chapter starts by explaining that, although the Three Natures are ultimately a singularity, a unity (see introduction), they are taught as a hierarchy for the sake of clarity: first the imagined, then the Other-Dependent Nature, and last the Consummate Nature. The Imagined Nature, as Verse Twenty-Three clarifies, is totally conventional and imaginary, and so is the other-dependent, though the imagined is what we are imagining and the other-dependent is how we are imagining it.
Then in Verse Twenty-Four, Vasubandhu reverses the order in which he wants us to consider the first and second natures believing that it is easier for us to see the nondual nature of the second nature, the Other-Dependent Nature, than the first. Once we see that nonduality, we can more readily reflect on the nonduality of appearances (including mind and Self) in the Imagined Nature. As long as we believe appearances are real, as is the stuff of the Imagined Nature, it will be hard to see more deeply into the nonduality, the Consummate Nature, of all things.
Having dealt with the first two natures, Vasubandhu leads us in the next verse (Verse Twenty-Five) to defining the Consummate Nature. The nature of the Consummate is its nonexistence of duality (unlike the first two natures which are dual), so it exists and doesn’t exist, it is existent and nonexistent simultaneously. That all phenomena are both apparently dual and ultimately nondual is their Consummate Nature.
This verse sums up the result of the previous two discussions: going “from top to bottom:”
- the consummate nature is noncognizable because all cognition, as discursive, is inescapably dualistic;
- the other two natures are nondual when seen from that perspective, despite the duality engendered from within the perspective of each.
But going the other way:
- the nature that is imagined is completely nonexistent from any higher perspective; therefore,
- the other-dependent nature, being the dependence of a nonexistent entity on the mind, is also nonexistent, when seen from the standpoint of the consummate; and
- the consummate is just the fact of the nonexistence of the first two.
Thus, Vasubandhu concludes, despite the vast difference in the character of the three perspectives from which phenomena have these three natures, the natures themselves are identical, joined in the object in virtue of its ideality.
Practice Notes: This hierarchy works like this: What appears to us as real is actually an unreal, imagined fabrication. How does it appear? As a dual self. What is its nonexistence? That by which the nondual reality is there, its consummate side.
So it’s all just an idea in my head! All phenomena are just ideas in my mind. I know this deeply because I have delved into the hierarchal breakdown of the Three Natures and their interrelationships and seen that they exist only in relationships to each other and as mental constructs, with the first two as a false duality and the third as the nonexistence of the first two. That said, whenever I am disturbed, I practice with this ideation by reminding myself that what is bothering me is just an idea, an idea that is imaged in a particular and very false way, because of how I process information and what is stored in my karmic consciousness. This weakens the grip the idea has on me and lessens my perturbed feelings.
When fear arises, for example, we need to remind ourselves that our main concern is to reconstruct the idea based on the understanding that fearfulness, like everything else, indicates nothing except the presence of the idea of fear in our minds.
To do this requires a deconstruction that can only come from considerable study and practice with these three natures and three duality pairs, as well as with insights relative to subject / object duality that arise in meditation. We recommend that you get a good handle on Nagarjuna’s Two Truths before you tackle these three natures in this way: first with serious study and then, or perhaps simultaneously, with mindfulness and insight meditations.
The Elephant Simile, Verses 27-34
Remembering that Vasubandhu’s audience for this treatise was other philosopher monks (largely resident in Buddhist universities), the use of a complicated, socio-temporal analogy to explain the Three Natures was appropriate and maybe even elucidating, but that is not the case today. Most students are more frustrated than elucidated by trying to dissect and make sense of this next section, generally called “The Elephant Simile.” The best and clearest explanation we have read comes from Vasubandhu scholar Stefan Anacker. We offer it here, as Anacker wrote it, for your exploration. First, Garfield’s translation of the key verses in this section of the treatise:
27. Like an elephant that appears
Through the power of a magician’s mantra—
Only the percept appears,
The elephant is completely nonexistent.
28. The imagined nature is the elephant;
The other-dependent nature is the visual percept;
The nonexistence of the elephant therein
Is explained to be the consummate.
29. Through the root consciousness
The nonexistent duality appears.
But since the duality is completely nonexistent,
There is only a percept.
30. The root consciousness is like the mantra.
Reality can be compared to the wood.
Imagination is like the perception of the elephant.
Duality can be seen as the elephant.
31. When one understands how things are,
Perfect knowledge, abandonment,
These three characteristics are simultaneously achieved.
32. Knowledge is nonperception;
Abandonment is nonappearance;
Attainment is accomplished through nondual perception.
That is direct manifestation.
33. Through the nonperception of the elephant,
The vanishing of its percept occurs;
And so does the perception of the piece of wood.
This is how it is in the magic show.
34. In the same way through the nonperception of duality
There is the vanishing of duality.
When it vanishes completely,
nondual awareness arises.
The central simile used in The Teaching of the Three Own-Beings is that of a magical creation.
To those unfamiliar with the dazzling feats of ancient Indian magicians, it may need explanation. Some kinds of magicians in India operate with what might be described as a form of mass hypnosis. For instance, they may sit in front of a pot, and make a huge flower grow very rapidly from it. Anyone who walks into the middle of the performance will see the same thing all the other spectators are seeing. But if a photograph of the event is taken, all that appears is the magician sitting in front of an empty pot.
In Vasubandhu’s example, a magician of this type is sitting in front of pieces of wood. Suddenly, an elephant appears, and all the spectators can see it, but just as suddenly, the magician can make “this elephant” disappear.
- Mantra = storehouse consciousness
- Wood = consummate nature
- Elephant = duality
- Magician = our mind
Vasubandhu’s magician uses a mantra to make everyone see “the elephant.” So, (1) the mantra is compared to the store-consciousness; (2) Suchness–emptiness, or the consummate–or underlying non-dual is analogous to the wood; discriminating (3) is compared to discrete entities of the elephant’s appearance; and (4) duality is compared to the elephant itself.
In other words, duality can disappear from consciousness as suddenly as it arose because of the ultimate non-duality that underpins everything.
We could analogize this to modern stage magic. In those cases what you are seeing on the stage doesn’t come and go like in mass hypnosis, but you still have a built-in duality as you know what is happening is a duality (and not real) – there and not there, happening and not happening. It is your mental construct that deludes you – you know that, despite all appearances, the person is not really floating, it is imaginary. Going even further, take our (sleeping) dreams – they seem real until we wake up, but in fact they are of exactly the same character and the phenomena we experience therein are constructed the same way as when we are “awake.”
We say “My mind is playing tricks on me” but we treat it as the exception not the rule – perhaps we have this backwards!
Practice Notes: What we discover if we contemplate this chapter is that the problem, as this analogy asserts, is not that we experience an illusory world; the problem is that we are fooled into accepting the reality of our perceptions and our concepts as real. And that’s the source of our suffering. Once we no longer believe, once we see the falsity of the illusion, the illusion goes away and we can come to experience the truth that lies behind the illusion—the ineffable “suchness,” the piece of wood.
So the praxis is: realize the illusory world without accepting it as reality, realizing the non-duality of our dualistic conventional concepts. Whenever upset or perturbed, remember not to accept the perturbation as real. Instead, lean into the worldview of the elephant simile and notice that we, the perturbed perceiver and the object, the seeming source of our perturbation, are one big fat illusion! Then train yourself not to believe it, with a metacognitive voice that arises whenever you are annoyed or anxious, or whatever, and reminds you—Don’t Believe It!
Conclusion, Verses 35-38
35. Through perceiving correctly,
Through seeing the nonreferentiality of mental states,
Through following the Three Wisdoms,
One will effortlessly attain liberation.
36. Through the perception of mind-only
One achieves the nonperception of objects;
Through the nonperception of objects
There is also the nonperception of mind.
37. Through the nonduality of perception,
Arises the perception of the fundamental nature of reality.
Through the perception of the fundamental nature of reality
Arises the perception of the radiant.
38. Through the perception of the radiant,
And through achieving the three supreme Buddha-bodies,
And through possessing Bodhi:
Having achieved this, the sage will benefit him or herself and others.
As we have seen stated repeated in earlier verses, Vasubandhu makes clear in this Verse Thirty-Five that if you understand that your mental states do not represent an independent reality, and also understand the three natures and their relationship to each other, attachments to Self and objects as genuine and real and as legitimate sources for craving and clinging fade and eventually cease. This ceasing, this ending of craving and clinging, is liberation, freedom from suffering. Implicit in this verse is the understanding that this has been a soteriological teaching, a teaching about the end game in Buddhism, ending suffering. This whole treatise has been a raft (or series of rafts) that take us to the other shore, to use the metaphor from the Heart Sutra, to liberation from suffering.
Verse Thirty-Six further explains that there is a connection between ending craving and attachment to external objects and craving and attachment to Self. The mind we perceive and the imaginary Self we so cherish are as much delusions as objects like the plant on Carl’s desk, though mind and Self are inner rather than outer objects.
So as we stated in the introduction, and is stated with great clarity Verse Thirty-Seven, understanding the Three Natures and their relationship to each other leads us to see the threefold characters of Self and other, and its non-duality, its singularity, leading us to perceive the world as radiant, without suffering.
Why bother with all this? Vasubandhu tells us in the concluding verse: embodying this deep understanding, this blissful non-attachment and so lack of suffering, along with its attendant aspiration to save all sentient beings, enables us to be maximally effective in being of benefit to all. Having done this, we will not only benefit all sentient beings with every act of body, speech and mind, but ourselves as well.
Practice Notes: One monk Carl knows, who spent more than a decade in a renowned Japanese Zen monastery, said that he doubted that a person could reach enlightenment without understanding the duality / unity concept presented here by Vasubandhu. Carl’s problem with that statement was that it implied that anyone who practiced Buddhism before this concept arose wouldn’t be able to be enlightened (Christianity had a similar dilemma regarding the souls of those born before Jesus died.) That would include everyone who practiced Buddhism in its first five hundred years after the death of the historic Buddha (and even including the Buddha himself?) Clearly what Buddhist history tells us is that there are many paths to liberation, and that the Three Nature is just one of them.
The Three Natures is a raft. It is not for everyone. It requires a profound level of commitment to deeply understand and practice with it. For most practitioners, it doesn’t come easy, but rather takes years of study and meditation with a senior dharma teacher guiding one to significantly impact and lessen one’s suffering. And almost no one who practices it becomes enlightened. More peaceful, yes, even quite a lot more peaceful; but enlightened, no. One great scholar monk said he believes there were maybe six people on the planet who were enlightened. There seems to be some consensus about this from the teachers we have known, though they all laugh at whether the number should be 6 or 10 or an even dozen. All agree, though, that it is not hundreds or thousands, more like a big handful. A profoundly practiced monk in Taiwan who was the number one disciple of the Venerable Master Yin Shun, who was perhaps the most profoundly practiced intellectual monk of the twentieth century, said that “enlightenment is a practice, not a thing we attain or a place we get to.” So the best we are going to get from this treatise are some perspectives that can lessen our dukkha. To assert that this is the path to enlightenment is hyperbole at best, a deceptive and erroneous view at worst.
Nonetheless, there are take-aways from this extraordinary treatise that can lessen our load, and that are worth the investment of our time. Take the inscrutable Elephant Simile. In a sentence, the analogy wants us to practice with the deep understanding that the problem is not that we experience an illusory world; the problem is that we are fooled, by the way our brain processes and feeds information to us, into accepting the reality of our illusory perceptions and concepts as real, as existent in the way we are perceiving them. Whenever we are uncomfortable or unsatisfied, or anxious and stressed—whenever we are feeling dukkha—we need to remember to activate an internal self-talk voice which reminds us that what we are experiencing is just in our mind, just in our mind and not real. That lessens our ability to attach to our Self and our story, thus lessening our discomfort.
Another takeaway is from the duality of afflicted and nonafflicted. Being all phenomena are both afflicted and nonafflicted, both a source of dukkha from one perspective and not a source of dukkha from another perspective, Vasubandhu is asserting that we can choose which perspective to use in interpreting a phenomenon. We can choose a wise perspective, a perspective that is nonafflictive, or an ignorant perspective, a perspective that is afflictive. How? We do this by realizing that a dukkha producing perspective is a misperception, and that we can correct that by remembering that all phenomena are (1) just imaginary, (2) that they arose in our minds in a relative and imaginary way, and (3) that, ultimately, they are empty of duality. Duality is the culprit here!
These are Vasubandhu’s concluding verses. In Verse 37 he reminds us that all phenomena have three natures, and that the unity of these natures is the consummate nonduality. Perceiving the world this way, Vasubandhu asserts, liberates us from suffering and radiance arises in its place. This radiance (Verse 38) is the source of an other-centered way of life, one in which our actions from body, speech, and mind, light up the world.