Another Kind of Self-Inquiry: Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning on Selflessness: By Greg Goode, Ph.D.
A chariot is not asserted to be other than its parts,
Nor non-other. It also does not possess them.
It is not in the parts, nor are the parts in it.
It is not the mere collection [of its parts], nor is it their shape.
[The self and the aggregates are] similar.
– Chandrakirti, Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s)
“Treatise on the Middle Way”
When I was about ten years old, my friends and I would throw rocks at each other. This led to a kind of self-inquiry, as I later found out. Smack! My friend’s rock hit my arm. “I got you,” he said with glee. “No you didn’t,” I retorted smugly, “You only got my arm.” Then he went for something closer to home. Bonk! The rock landed on my head. Now I got you!” “No, that was only my head.” Later, I thought a lot about this, for many years in fact. There was no place a rock could land that I thought was truly me. In fact, whatever “X” could named was not me, because it was “My X.” But where was the “I”? It’s not as though I didn’t have a strong sense of it. I did, especially at first. This is why I looked so hard for it for so many years. But no matter where I looked, it seemed to keep shifting around, almost as though it was always in back of me! Even as a youth, years before I had ever heard of Buddhism or nondualism or Chandrakirti, the inability to find the “I” really did begin to weaken my sense of its reality.
The Sevenfold Reasoning is a Buddhist meditation on the ultimate nature of things – persons (the “I”) and phenomena. In the traditions of Buddhism that utilize the Sevenfold Reasoning (such as the Dalai Lama’s sect, the Gelukba Madhyamikas), the ultimate nature of things is said to be emptiness. The Sevenfold Reasoning is based on the teachings of Chandrakirti, an 8th-century Indian Buddhist teacher. Chandrakirti provided a way to inquire into the ultimate or final nature of things, as a way to help relieve suffering. In doing so, he extended the arguments of Nagarjuna (2nd-3rd century), whose monumental Treatise On The Middle Way had systematized the teachings in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (100BCE – 100CE). According to these sutras and teachings, it is the ignorance or misconception about the way things exist that keeps sentient beings in suffering and cyclic existence. Sentient beings have the conception that phenomena (as well as they themselves!) exist in a very solid, independent way, whereas nothing really exists in this way. When this conception ceases, ignorance ceases, and suffering ceases.
The Sevenfold Reasoning is a set of inferences that one contemplates deeply. Even though they are an intellectual process, it is known as a meditation in the Buddhist Middle Way teachings. The reasonings are to be gone into intensely, with the full force of one’s feelings about how things are. The reasonings are not a method of “no-thought” or of turning the mind away from objects. Instead, objects are taken full-strength, faced directly and forcefully. When these powerful reasonings are gone into fully, one’s view of one’s self and the world is deeply shaken. For a moment it might feel as if the earth has turned upside down, or one has fallen into a huge crevasse. Thereafter, things, including one’s sense of self, do not really have the same inert heaviness any longer. In Middle Way treatises, it is said that if the Sevenfold Reasoning seems too abstract, intellectual or irrelevant, and if it does not engender deep feelings of something having shifted, then perhaps it is not the best meditation for now.
What is this mistaken conception of how things exist? It is partly a matter of feeling and partly a matter of thinking. The feeling component is partly a felt sense that things are somehow really there, solid, independent, separate from us, and somehow casting themselves towards us. The thinking part is an intellectual sense of things as self-sufficient and independent of everything. To flesh out this intellectual strand of total independence from everything, Middle Way treatises speak of three kinds of independence. For example, if a cup exists inherently and independently in the way that matches our conception of “independent of everything,” then it exists independent of causes and conditions, independent of its own parts, and independent of being observed by a mind. For suffering beings, the feeling and intellectual sense of inherent existence apply to any cognizable object, whether it is a school bus, the feeling of joy, “2+2=4.” This is an example of the conception of the inherent existence of phenomena.
This sense or conception applies not just to phenomena but also to people, including ourselves. We appear to exist inherently just like the coffee cup. For example, after a swift kick in the shin or a false accusation (or a true one!), a very palpable sense of an inherently existing self arises. Blood and anger might arise, the stomach might get queasy. “How could they do that to me? I’ll show them!” This sense, fired by the pain of indignation, seems to point to a self that is really there, and at the moment, very offended. This sense of self (not the insulted-ness but the self that has suffered the insult) is a sense that feels like I am really there. This sense does not seem like a self that depends on causes and conditions. It does not seem to be dependent on the parts and pieces of the body/mind, and it does not seem to be dependent upon being imputed by thought. It seems like one very wronged but very real self. This is an example of the sense of inherent existence — the inherent existence of the “I.”
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It is said in Middle Way Buddhism that this conception of inherent existence is a misconception. It is said to be a misconception because although things appear to exist in this way, they actually do not exist in this way. Although the conception of inherent existence is present, inherent existence itself can nowhere be found. This unfindability of inherent existence is the emptiness that Middle Way Buddhism teaches about.
There is a traditional caveat given to those desiring to study the teachings or reasonings on emptiness. The caveat, which is given in most texts and scholarly commentaries on the subject, warns that emptiness does not entail utter non-existence, nihilism, or psychological depression. It also advises that the teachings on emptiness should only be studied by (i) those who burst out in tears at the mere mention of the word “emptiness,” (ii) those whose hair stands on end at the mention of the word, or (iii) those who have faith in such teachings and who feel certain that emptiness does not negate conventional cause-and-effect as presented in the Buddhist path.
The reason for this caveat is to prevent a nihilistic approach to life and the Buddhist path. The teachings on emptiness attempt to show that spiritual progress is possible exactly because things are empty. But the nihilistic reaction to the teachings is an offtrack misunderstanding, which manifests partly as (i) a mistaken belief that since everything is empty there is no conventional cause-effect relation between phenomena, and (ii) a hopeless feeling that there is no point to spiritual progress. Most teachings on emptiness attempt to counteract this nihilistic approach. See, for example, the works referred to in the footnotes at the end of this article.
The Sevenfold Reasonings refute inherent existence, which is also called the “object to be negated.” The conception of inherent existence, along with the grasping feelings discussed above is called the “object to be abandoned.” Inherent existence itself is called the “object to be negated.” The Sevenfold Reasonings work like this: once inherent existence is deeply understood not to exist, then the conception of inherent existence (along with the grasping) will be abandoned spontaneously. That is, once we thoroughly negate the “object to be negated,” the “object to be abandoned” will no longer appear.
How does this work? We see a cup. Because it appears to really be there under its own steam, independent of causes, independent of its parts, and independent of being perceived, it appears to be inherently existent. Not only does it appear to be inherently existent, we might also actually believe that it exists this way. This appearance and this belief make up the conception of inherent existence. The conception of inherent existence is said by Middle Way Buddhism to be the root of suffering. Moreover, just because we have the conception of inherent existence does not mean that inherent existence really exists. It is sort of like having the idea of a unicorn, or seeing a snake where there is only a rope. Just because we have the conception of an object does not establish the existence of that object.
The Sevenfold Reasoning provides a meditative way to look for inherent existence and see that it is not findable. Once inherent existence is clearly seen to be not-findable, the conception of inherent existence will cease. The end of this misconception is said to be the end of cyclical existence, and amounts to the Buddhist Third Noble Truth – the cessation of suffering. The Sevenfold Reasonings are part of the Buddhist Fourth Noble Truth, which is the path leading to the end of suffering.
The reasonings explore the questions, “What is the relationship between the car and the parts of the car?” and “What is the relationship between my self and the parts of my body/mind?” If the car really existed inherently the way it appears to, then this inherent existence entails certain things about the parts of the car. If the I existed inherently as it seems to, then this entails certain things about my body and mind. Using the Sevenfold Reasoning, we can see whether these entailments make sense. If we can see that the implications of inherent existence are not true, then we can see how inherent existence itself cannot exist. If we can see this, then the conceptions of inherent existence will cease and there will be freedom from suffering.
If things do not exist truly or inherently, do they exist at all? Or do they totally and utterly lack existence? The Buddha is quoted as saying, “What the world accepts, I accept. What the world does not accept, I do not accept.” In the Middle Way teachings, it is said that things do exist conventionally. The conventional existence of the cup is the everyday ability of the cup to hold tea, to be washed and dried, and to shatter if dropped. The cup is a mere nominality or imputation or “say-so,” asserted by the mind dependent upon certain pieces and parts. This conventional cup serves the purpose of a cup even though if it were analyzed with the Sevenfold Reasoning, it would not be found. The fact that it would be unfindable under this analysis is not significant, since nothing could withstand that analysis. The purpose of the Sevenfold Reasoning is not to negate every possible thing that can be negated; rather, it is to negate inherent existence – the conception of which causes suffering.
The Sevenfold Reasoning is not applied to refute the conventional, everyday existence of things, such as the teacup, the self that goes to the grocery store, or the Yankees who won the 2000 Subway Series. There are three main reasons for not refuting conventional existence. One is that conventional existence, according to Middle Way Buddhism, is not the cause of suffering. Therefore, there is no necessity to refute it. Two, not refuting conventional existence allows Buddhism to be able to “speak with the world” by accepting what the world accepts.
Three, not refuting conventional existence provides a way for Buddhism to present the Four Noble Truths and the eight-fold path to the end of suffering. Even though the Buddhist teachings are vast and profound teachings, they are still conventional existents. By not refuting conventional existence while indeed refuting inherent existence, Buddhism itself can tread the Middle Way between the extremes of existence. If conventional existence were refuted along with inherent existence, the Buddhist path would not be possible since nothing would be said to exist. Refuting conventional existence would err on the side of nihilism. Retaining conventional existence avoids this extreme.
On the other hand, if inherent existence were not refuted, then too the Buddhist path would not be possible. Inherently existent things are independent of everything and therefore causeless, untouchable and eternal. If things existed inherently, they would be forever frozen in place, and no change or progress along the Buddhist path would be possible. Suffering entities would forever remain suffering entities. For Buddhism not to refute inherent existence would err on the side of eternalism. Avoiding both extremes is the Middle Way.
In Middle Way treatises, there are two preliminary steps that facilitate the Sevenfold Reasoning. Their purpose is to make the reasonings “up close and personal,” to help put the “object to be negated” clearly in sight. The first step is for the meditator to generate a clear sense of inherent existence. This can be done by imagining, for instance, a serious, embarrassing and public insult, and then deeply experiencing the thoughts and feelings that occur. These arisings are said to depend on the conception of inherent existence. This process of summoning up the feelings is not dangerous, and the effort does not make the sense of inherent existence stronger and more firmly entrenched. Rather, it allows the meditator to generate a clearer, more visceral image of what is to be negated. It keeps the meditator’s conception of the “object to be negated” from being too thinly intellectual, and keeps the meditation from being merely a word-game. It is a lot of work!
The second preliminary step is to review the overall dynamic of the Sevenfold Reasoning. You can proceed like this, following this pattern: If X, then Y. Not Y. Therefore, not X.
- If the inherent existence of the chariot (or the self) were established, then this inherent existence would be findable in at least one of the seven ways.
- It is not findable in any of the seven ways. (The Sevenfold Reasoning itself is gone through in this step.)
- Therefore the inherent existence of the chariot (or the self) is not established.
The reasonings are based on a common-sense search for the object called inherent existence, based on the example of, say a cup, a chariot, or one’s self. If inherent existence of the cup is a findable thing, existing the way it appears, then it ought to be either the same as the parts of the cup, or different from the parts of the cup. This is analogous to looking for a cat in the house. If she is findable in the house, then she is either in the living room or somewhere other than the living room. But if she is found not to be in the living room and not to be anywhere else in the house, then we can safely say there is no cat in the house. Indeed, if we can feel as certain about the dynamic of the Sevenfold Reasoning as we feel about the cat analogy, then this very insight starts to chip away at our conception of inherent existence, and a feeling of peace and joy can result.
Personal things often rivet our attention while impersonal things are hardly noticed. The conception of inherent existence of persons (such as one’s self) causes more suffering and is harder to remove than the conception of inherent existence of non-personal phenomena such as cars and trees. According to Middle Way Buddhism, both kinds of conceptions must be refuted in order to end the ignorance that causes suffering and cyclical existence. The conception of the inherent existence of phenomena is the root of the conception of the inherent existence of persons. This is because the senses perceive phenomena such as shapes, sounds, colors, textures, etc. The mind, if it considers the final nature of these phenomena, considers them to be inherently existent. For some phenomena, perhaps the shape of an arm, a hand, or a face, or the sound of a voice, the mind attributes the entity of person. For the mind that considers the final nature of this person, the person is considered to be inherently existent. In Middle Way teachings, it is said that without realizing the selflessness of persons, it is not possible to realize the selflessness of phenomena. So the meditative reasonings are done first on persons. Even so, it is often recommended to beginners to familiarize themselves with the reasonings by using the example of a car, or chariot, as in Chandrakirti’s example.
We will simply list the seven steps for these phenomena, and then examine the reasonings in terms of persons.
The Sevenfold Reasoning on the Selflessness of Phenomena:
- The car is not inherently the same as its parts.
- The car is not inherently different from its parts.
- The car is not inherently dependent upon its parts.
- The car is not inherently the substratum upon which its parts depend.
- The car is not inherently the possessor of its parts.
- The car is not inherently the mere collection of its parts.
- The car is not inherently the shape of its parts.
The reasonings on the selflessness of persons try to find the true person. They search by trying to isolate the inherent existence of the person in relation to the parts the body/mind. For purposes of one’s meditation, the parts of the body/mind include everything related to what one thinks of as one’s self. It can be any physical, mental, moral or psychological phenomenon whatsoever. We might think of ourselves as a body, a mind, set of memories, or a collection of character values, or something that essentially includes all of these. The reasonings go like this. With a firm sense of this inherent existence in mind, we try to isolate it – is the inherent existence of the self exactly the same as the parts of the body/mind? Is it different from the parts? These first two steps of the Sevenfold Reasoning logically cover all the bases. The self is either inherently the same as, or different from, the parts. The other steps of the reasonings are valuable to go into because they keep the meditation from being purely an intellectual exercise. We might, for example, truly feel that the self owns the body/mind. This is the conception to get at, even though it is logically entailed by the self being different from the body/mind. Once all the reasonings are gone through in depth and the inherent existence of the self is not found anywhere, this can upset one’s conception of the way things are. At first it is disorienting and perhaps scary. Later, it can be the source of great joy.
- The self is not inherently the same as the parts of the body/mind.
- The self is not different from the parts of the body/mind.
- The self is not dependent upon the parts of the body/mind.
- The self is not inherently the substratum upon which the parts of the body/mind depend.
- The self is not inherently the possessor of the parts of the body/mind.
- The self is not inherently the mere collection of the parts of the body/mind.
- The self is not inherently the shape of the parts of the body/mind.
Taking these one at a time,
1. The self is not inherently the same as the parts of the body/mind. If we understand the parts as various groups of physical, mental, and psychological factors, we ask: Is the self equal to these things? Is it equal to them individually? If it is, then certain counterintuitive results apply. The self would be equal to each body part or each thought individually. The self would be many just as the parts are many. But we don’t think of the self as many, so it cannot be found in all the parts taken individually. How about the parts taken as a whole? This is also not what we think of when we conceive of the inherent existence of the self. If the self is equal to the parts and the self is single, then the parts must be one single entity. This is clearly not the case. Also, if the self is equal to all the parts, then we could never get our hair cut, or lose a finger or gain a new thought. For that newly missing or added element changes the overall parts. If the self is equal to all the parts, this new addition or deletion would mean that we have a new self. But our strong intuition is clearly that the self can undergo change. So the self cannot be equal to all the parts. It is not just that we have not looked hard enough. We have looked at the possibility of the self being the parts. In the parts we have found the lack of inherent existence of the self. It cannot be there.
2. The self is not inherently different from the parts of the body/mind. If the self were inherently different from its parts, then too odd things result. You would be able to apprehend the self somehow in total isolation from the parts. Conceptually, you would be able to strip away the elements of the body/mind until none are left but nevertheless still be able to point to the self. You would have to still be able to distinguish this partless self from someone else’s self. Where would this partless self be? It must be able to have a different location from the body. As they might say in Missouri, “Show me that self with no parts.” The self would be one thing and the parts would be a totally separate thing. So the self is not inherently different from the parts of the body/mind.
3. The self is not inherently dependent upon the parts of the body/mind. Is the self inherently dependent upon the parts? Sometimes we think so. Sometimes the self appears as something above and beyond the parts, but somehow supported or buoyed up by the parts. This relation of dependence is another case of (2) above, the self being a different entity from the parts, which has been refuted. If the self is dependent on the parts, it must be different from the parts. Why is dependence given as a separate meditation in addition to mere difference? So we can gain insight on the falsity of the sense we often have that dependence on the body/mind is a special way that the self truly exists. It is almost is though the sense of inherent existence is hiding out in the sense we have of dependence.
Besides the problem that dependence entails difference, which was refuted, there is another problem with dependence. That is, what is the link between the self in question and this particular set of parts such that this self is dependent upon the parts? Why isn’t another self dependent upon the parts? Conversely, why is the self in question dependent on these particular parts and not my next-door neighbor’s parts? Two more odd consequences follow if there were inherent existence of the self in dependence on the parts. (a) The self related to these parts… What makes that self my self? This supposedly inherently existent self fails to satisfy the criteria that would make it my self. I would need another self to bind the parts and the self together under the auspices of “mine,” but this second self does not exist. Even if it did, there would need to be yet another self to make that one mine, and so on ad infinitum. And (b), why is there not more than one self dependent upon the same set of parts? Why not? This is consistent with the conditions given. Since this self is totally different from the parts, I cannot see this self; other selves can be supported by the same parts. These are all natural conclusions if there is a self different from the parts that is inherently dependent upon the parts. In a search for the inherently existent self which depends on the parts of the body/mind, this self has proved unfindable.
4. The self is not inherently the substratum upon which the parts of the body/mind depend. Do the parts inherently depend upon the self, which serves as their substratum? This is another case of the refuted alternative (2) above, the self being inherently different from the parts. And it is similar to alternative (3) above, with the dependence running in the opposite direction. Similar consequences occur with this alternative.
“Why these parts? Why this particular self? Show it to me in isolation from the parts. No! Not that one over there, this self!”
In addition, since we are looking for the substratum in this case, trying to isolate it as the inherently existent self, it is especially instructive to meditate on this? Can more than one substratum support the same set of parts? Either simultaneously or in succession over time? Assume for the moment a relation of an inherently existing self as the substratum of the parts of the body/mind. Is it the same at time T1 as at time T2? Going by the reasoning of case (4), there is no reason it cannot be a different self and no proof that it is the same self. But if it is different, then we have the absurd conclusion that the same body/mind is supported by two selves over time. Then, I would be an inherently different self at T2 than I am at T1. And if the body can depend on two selves simultaneously, then I am different from myself even now! Therefore, the inherent existence of the self cannot lie in its being the substratum on which the parts of the body/mind depend.
5. The self is not inherently the possessor of the parts of the body/mind. This is yet another case of (2), the self being different from the parts, as well as a bit of (1), where the self is the same entity as the parts. But it is very fruitful to go though this meditation completely on its own, since we have often have a strong conception that the self possesses the parts of the body/mind. This alternative deserves its own meditative refutation.
Perhaps the self possesses its parts in the way that I possess my hand. This would be a case in which I am the same entity as my hand (as in (1) above.) If this alternative is gone into, it becomes quite doubtful, since for me to conceive strongly of possessing my hand, I must mentally pull away from the hand for the moment at least, and conceive of myself as something other than the hand. For me to be truly the same entity as the hand, I cannot possess the hand. A thing cannot possess itself. So the self cannot possess the parts in this way.
Or, perhaps I possess my hand in the way that I possess the car. This is a case of (2) above, the possessor and the possessed as two separate entities. In addition to the impossibility of the self being a different entity from its parts, what is there in common that links the parts and the self as possessor and possessed? Just what is it that serves as the possessor of the hand? It is not the hand or any other part of the body or mind. Where is it? We can only come up with a vacuity, the emptiness of the inherent existence of such an inherently existing self.
6. The self is not inherently the mere collection of the parts of the body/mind. Perhaps the self is inherently the mere collection of the parts of the body/mind. The falsity of this one is a little harder to realize. Our sense of inherent existence of the self seems to put a little distance between the parts and the self. We seem to conceive of a bit of a gap between appropriator and appropriated, between agent and action, between “my” and “body/mind.” In this alternative, all there is, is the body/mind. Why even talk about the self? There would be no need to have something called “the self” which is exactly the parts of the body/mind. Agent and action would be one. Self and body/mind would be one. The self would be redundant, and unfindable. Also, in the Middle Way schools of Buddhism that employ the Sevenfold Reasoning, it is said that the conventional self is not the parts themselves, but is posited on the basis of the parts. Based on apprehending those particular parts, a designated self is said to exist conventionally. It is not the parts, but is based on the parts. The appropriator and appropriated are slightly and subtlely different. There is room to make sense of “my life,” “my actions.” A self redundant with the parts cannot exist inherently.
7. The self is not inherently the shape of the parts of the body/mind. This alternative investigates whether the self is inherently the shape of the parts of the body/mind. Can this be? According to this, self would be a physical thing. Non-physical components such as a mind and thoughts and values do not have a shape. Even though these non-physical things are not inherently the self (as we saw in (1) above), it certainly makes no sense for them to be totally irrelevant to the self, as they would be if the self were merely the shape of the parts. Also, if the self is the shape, then this allows no change in shape without a corresponding change in identity of the self. Over time the shape of the body changes. People grow, gain weight, perhaps take up yoga or weightlifting and tone up. Perhaps they lose a limb, lose their hair, become bent with age. Even in the absence of these kinds of shape changes, there are the perceptual shape changes due to changes in posture, standing vs. sitting. There are other shape changes due to the angle from which the parts are viewed. From the left or the right, from near or far, the appearance of the shape changes. The shape criterion misses the point of our conception of the inherent existence of the self, since according to that conception, the inherently existing self is able to persist through changes in shape of the parts. So the self is not inherently the shape of the parts.
These reasonings search for the inherently existent self. If it does exist, then logically, it must be either the same as the parts of the body/mind, or different. If it is different from the parts, then there are several seemingly likely candidates proposed for what the self is and how it stands in relation to those parts. But in every case, the self was looked for and not found. What was found instead was an absence, a vacuity, which is the lack of this inherently existing self. The more we understand the dynamics of the Sevenfold Reasonings, the more clearly we can see how the inherently existing self cannot exist. We have the conception that things exist inherently. But upon examination, we see deeply that they cannot possibly exist in this way. There is an earth-shattering shift when this meditation is done at a level deeper than intellectual word-play. And if one refutes the object of inherent existence over and over, using the examples of different kinds of phenomena, one will see something new begin to happen. Persons and phenomena will be conceived as conventionally existent but lacking inherent existence. This is the end of the conception of inherent existence, and the end of painful and afflicted arisings such as the following:
“How could she do that to me? That is absolutely not permissible! I have done so much for her, and this is the gratitude I get!”
If these feelings are greeted with even an intellectual, inferential cognition of the emptiness of inherent existence, the sense of anger and indignation will dissolve right then and there! And should the conception of inherent existence ever come to an end, then feelings and beliefs like these will arise no more. According to the Buddhist Middle Way teachings, this is the end of suffering and the end of one’s cyclical existence.
— End —
 The Sevenfold Reasoning can be purused in greater detail in two excellent books available in English. Joe Wilson’s 69-page Chandrakirti’s Sevenfold Reasoning: Meditation on the Selflessness of Persons. Dharmasala, India: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1980. Also, Jeffrey Hopkins’ Emptiness Yoga. Ithaca, New York. Snow Lion Publications, 1995. 510 pages. Some if the images and insights in the present article are inspired by these works.
 Kensur Yeshey Tupden, Path to the Middle: Oral Madhyamika Philosophy, edited and translated Anne Carolyn Klein: Albany, New York: State University of New York, 1994, p. 144.