Buddhist Notebook: Svatantrika View

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.

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3 Responses to Buddhist Notebook: Svatantrika View

  1. Zen says:


  2. Terence Griffin says:

    This reminds me of an anecdote about Suzuki Daisetz when he was engaged in a discussion with a number of philosophers at Columbia U. One of them asked him, in a knowing philosphery way, if, given the “Zen” idea of nothingness, SD believed that the conference table was “real”. He smiled, rapped the table with his knuckles and said, ” Seems pretty real to me”.
    I suppose that one aspect is of this that there is an inherent reality to things but our perception of that reality is wholly conditioned by the unreality of our perceptions – both in terms of the apparatus for perception and the mental construction that is made by the mind.
    I’ll ask my son about it. He’s a Lam Rim nut.
    Meanwhile I’ll get back to the dojo and try to discover the reality of nobiai

    • karamatsu says:

      I never quite know what to make of Zen’s stance on things like this, but then Suzuki was obviously being a bit playful, too. The question (about Zen) remains in the back of my mind, though, waiting for some bit of insight. The trouble is that if you ask Zen people about it they’ll throw a cat at you or something!
      And yes, the reality of nobiai… I was just thinking tonight that perhaps I take things too seriously and to do things well requires a only very, very light touch. Off to the dojo for me, too, tomorrow!

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