Along with tying strings I’ve been working more with two of Jeffrey Hopkins’s books, Emptiness Yoga and Tsong-kha-pa’s Final Exposition of Wisdom, and the notes from those lectures my friend is taking. One thing I’ve never quite grasped is the crux of the so-called Madhyamaka-Svatantrika view, that objects could be “inherently existent conventionally,” in the sense of existing from their own side even while existing in dependence upon an unmistaken mind that labels them.
At first, after having been steeped in Prasangika explanations, “inherently exist conventionally” seems like an oxymoron. What could that possibly mean? But what I’ve come to believe it means is this: Take some object like your car and try to figure out what makes it a car, why you (correctly) call it a car, and why other cars are called cars. The process seems to be one of subtraction. You start with your car and then take away as much stuff as you possibly can and still have a car there. (Mentally!) take off the front doors. Still a car? Yes. Take off the back doors. Still a car? Yes. Bumpers, fenders, hood, trunk, windows. Take off the roof. Take out the radio, air conditioner, blah, blah, blah. The point is to get it down to the point where what you have left in your mental driveway is the absolute minimum needed to still be a car. I imagine it would be a very simple frame, the wheels, axles, engine, gasoline tank, a place to sit and a few basic controls. Picture a big go-cart.
Although it’s true that if a car has no wheels or engine we might still call it a car, let’s draw the line there because a wheel-less or engine-less car can’t actually function as a car. It might have the potential to function as a car later, after a few repairs, but not now. Also the fine details (manual or automatic?) are things for car people to argue about.
The point is that this absolute minimum combination of stuff is what I think the Svatantrika would identify as that aspect of the car that exists from its own side, and so gives the car a way to “inherently exist conventionally.” It still has to be labelled “car” by an unmistaken mind, and therefore the “car-ness” remains conventional, but the reason you are allowed to label “car” on this bunch of stuff is that this essential core is out there, right now, in the driveway. We call this a “car” because it has these things, and if it didn’t have these things, we wouldn’t call it a car. They are the required components.
I find this interesting because I vividly remember thinking about just this sort of thing as I walked home from school one day in 1983. At that time I was thinking about “horse” and what makes a horse a horse. Cars are easier to analyse. But more importantly I think Tsongkhapa is right, that exploring this Svatantrika view is a good way to get at what the Prasangikas have in mind. And then also, in meditation, I think that kind of subtractive process is what a lot of us do when asked to identify something, or say how it is identified. Prasangikas might accept the list of qualifications, but not accept that they exist “out there,” and you can see why. Apply their usual logic. Is the “minimum” car the same as its parts or different? Ultimately you will not find it. So rather than being out there, even the minimum possible car exists only as a mere imputation, designated in dependence upon the those various parts.