γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Who or what is Thyself ?  And what does it mean to know it?

There is a common misconception that Buddhism denies the existence of a self.

The key to this conundrum is to understand that there is a difference between Buddha and Buddhism, and a difference between the true ontological state of an individual and that individual’s mental state.  There are many theories and systems for coming to terms with who we truly are and almost all of these culminate with a state called knowledge – knowledge of God, knowledge of self, knowledge of no-self, knowledge of essence, etc.   In the Dzogchen practice of contemplation, there is a direct and instant presence of Being that not only can be known (in one’s mind), but that also intrinsically knows itself.  This is like a mirror whose intrinsic quality of reflectivity can be correctly understood when the reflections themselves are understood to be reflections, and not taken to be something real.  According to Dzogchen teachings we can be in a state of real knowledge because our real nature is self-knowing.  The word, we, in the previous sentence refers to the holistic gestalt of manifestation that metaphorically constitutes that which is reflected in the mirror-like nature of our Being(ness).

Not at all as a game or diversionary brain-twister, but rather as a device for recognizing the precision that is necessary for the process of self-realization, consider the following situation.

Lilija lives in Dushanbe but is an expert on classic American cars because her dad collected them.  One day, her friend Aarn contacted her and asked if she would meet him in Prague to evaluate a 1966 Chevelle that was being offered by a dealer there.  She enthusiastically agreed and, after arriving there, helped Aarn negotiate a great deal on the car.  Lilija remained in Prague for the next two days, socializing with Aarn and his friends and, of course, having a great time cruising around town in Aarn’s new Chevelle.  After she returned home, Lilija didn’t have the opportunity to communicate with Aarn because of her work schedule.  In that interim, however, Aarn (who tended to be somewhat impulsive) had traded-in the Chevelle for a 1964 Pontiac GTO that the same dealer had acquired after Lilija’s departure.  Some weeks later a mutual friend asked Lilija about Aarn.  Before relating the details about their great time together in Prague, Lilija informed the friend that Aarn was now the proud owner of a great American car.  The mutual friend was very surprised and said, “Are you sure, Lilija?  Aarn always preferred Italian cars.”  With understandable certainty, Lilija then said, “Oh yes, I know for sure that he has an American car.”

So, the questions are:  Although Aarn does indeed have an American car, does Lilija really know that?  Furthermore, did Lilija ever have such knowledge?  If she did have that knowledge at one time, did that knowledge simply vanish?  If it vanished, when did it vanish — the moment she left Prague or the moment Aarn traded-in the Chevelle?  There are more possible questions about Lilija’s knowledge of this situation but these would be a good start.  Naturally, the point of all this is to stimulate interest to inquire into the details of one’s own knowledge or lack of knowledge.

Your comments about Lilija’s knowledge will be appreciated.  Your comments about classic cars are also welcome but may not make print.

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13 Responses to γνῶθι σεαυτόν

  1. Luca says:

    It seems that Lilija had knowledge of Aarn’s owning an American car only from the time he bought the Chevelle until she departed Prague (presuming that Aarn probably dropped her off at the airport, driving the Chevelle). After that time, she could not have actual knowledge but only the assumption that what she once knew was still true. To think about how and where the knowledge went, boggles my mind too much.

  2. taretam2012 says:

    There are some assumptions to be made regarding Lilija’s knowing. To quote a parameter of the game, “according to Dzogchen teachings, we can be in a state of real knowledge because our real nature is self-knowing.” If Lilija was in a state of rigpa, she could have very well intuited that Aarn still had an American car…

    … On the other hand, Aarn could have told her, when he purchased the Chevelle, that he was only going to invest in American classics; and trusting his …

    • Yedruk says:

      1. The exercise presented here intentionally limited the facts of the matter so that only a specific issue would be relevant. A definite purpose would therefore be served by limiting consideration to the questions about Lilija’s knowledge of Aarn’s car ownership. The reason for this is to expose certain misconceptions about what we commonly call knowledge so that, if those misconceptions become resolved, we may understand more clearly what higher knowledge might afford.

      2. The concept of intuition does refer to a type of knowledge, but there was no indication in the narrative that Lilija was resorting to that. In fact, her “understandable certainty” indicates the contrary.

      3. Being in the state of rigpa does not really grant powers of intuition. And there are many people with strong intuitive abilities who know nothing about being in the state of rigpa.

  3. gsngsng says:

    What Lilija knows [sometimes incorrectly, sometimes correctly] is Lilija’s knowledge.

    • Yedruk says:

      This is a slippery area where what is actually so tries to dance with what we say about what is actually so. 1. You can’t know something incorrectly. 2. If the knowledge in question is concerning something that is subject to time, then as that something changes (in time), the prior knowledge about it fades away. There is of course still knowledge of how it used to be, but no knowledge of how it presently is. The typical know-er is also subject to time. So, there is actually a double fading as time takes its toll. 3. In Dzogchen practice, we learn to differentiate between states that are subject to time and states that are prior to time. Our essential state of Being is prior to time, and self-knowing. We have, as our primordial (atemporal) potential, the capacity to shift (instantly) from time-based knowledge of essentially unreal matters, to real Knowledge of our real essence, real nature and timeless unfoldment. How to make this shift, get used to doing so, and ultimately integrate everything in this Knowledge, is the meaning of Dzogchen practice.

  4. gsngsng says:

    Some thing (circumstance, event, process, person) is known in its being experienced. In such experience, data is collected, evaluated, and memorized, and the thing (event, circumstance, person, process) known (and its having been experienced) is categorized, typified, and formulated as an image of its having been known, along with a summary of any topical data deemed to be in any way relevant. This image/summary is used to project scenarios of other probable circumstances concerning what has before been or may come to be known in experience. Erroneously and in the name of convenience, this image/summary comes to be called “knowledge.” It only seems to be present as knowledge, but, when actual data is crucial, the mistake is seen. The convention of erroneously considering the above process and its outcome “knowledge” not being acknowledged, the term “knowledge” is used without more clearly determining the actual limits of the concept, and matching the usage with the determined meaning. This kind of “knowledge” does not have to vanish at a certain time, it only appears as knowledge when it is not seen for what it is. Usually, these image/summaries do not simply vanish, but are only replaced with newer image/summaries when the same image/summary-making process is repeated, and any corresponding image/summaries updated. In this case, Lilija’s “knowledge” [‘image/summary’] “vanishes” later, when new ‘data is collected, evaluated, and memorized;’ and is ‘categorized, typified, and formulated as an image of its having been known, along with a summary of any topical data deemed to be in any way relevant’—but, even when “correct,” these sorts of image/summaries are still not “knowledge.”

    • Yedruk says:

      I appreciate your insightful analysis.

    • Christopher says:

      I’d like to express my gratitude for this provocative post. I suggest that a single instant after knowing a fact to be true, any factor may affect a change …and so the possibility is born for the knowing to “pass into oblivion”: to dis-integrate. In this case, Lilija’s knowledge no longer existed the moment the continuity of her verification ceased (when she left Prague). Wishing to remain open, I hesitate to define actual knowledge, or it’s duration. Perhaps what is reliably knowable is only that which is beyond time.

      • Lhun-grub says:

        1) Which of the moments during which Lilija was leaving Prague would [according to your suggestion] be the moment when her “knowledge vanished?” 2) How long do you hesitate before you define this “single instant?” No “knowledge” is preserved by such hesitation, since the knowledge simply “passes into oblivion,” due to proximate, and utterly unpredictable, and/or random events. This, also, would be the case for “knowledge of” “that which is beyond time, since, according to the as yet undefined usage, it is the knowledge which is subject to “dis-integration,” not that which this *Knowledge* knows. Neither the cars, nor Aarn have vanished in the story, and neither would this projected world of the vaunted “beyond time.”

  5. Matti-ji says:

    Can knowledge “vanish”? If we watch the scene in slow motion, will there be a frame when knowledge is appearing in L, and then a frame when knowledge is not appearing L? If so there have to be specific markers identifying the presence or absence of knowledge. If we open up L’s brain, are the markers there? Obviously there are no discernible physical markers. There wouldn’t markers in her thoughts either, especially when she’s not thinking about the object of knowledge, and such thoughts may be very infrequent anyway. There are no markers in her speech when she’s not speaking about what she ‘knows’. It seems as if hard evidence for the presence of objective knowledge cannot be found. If so, there is no way to determine the existence of an event called “vanishing” of knowledge. There’s no real difference or division between knowing or absence of knowing. In fact, these are just descriptions imposed upon ineffability.

    • Yedruk says:

      When you’re dreaming during sleep, there are dream visions and dream experiences, and it seems there is a kind of knowledge associated with those visions and experiences. But when we wake up, we realize that it was a dream and unreal. Is knowledge about something unreal really knowledge? At some point living beings reach a level of spiritual maturity that compels a confrontation with reality. Knowledge of what is real becomes the nucleus of all meanings.

      • Matti-ji says:

        Okay, so as knowledge of objects (and thus objects themselves) are just conventional descriptions, none of it is real. And then “what IS real” is by definition not an object or phenomenon. Thus there is no “confrontation with reality” as a phenomenon, nor is there a real “nucleus of all meanings”. Also, a real phenomenon called “thyself” cannot found, whether the description be ‘mature’ or ‘immature’, ‘awake’ or ‘dreaming’.

      • Yedruk says:

        1. If you correctly understand the difference between real and unreal, then so be it. Knowledge of reality nevertheless remains distinct from just understanding. If you have actual knowledge of reality, then so be it. However, there is more to this issue than just negations, because, it is not totally accurate to say that “what is real … is not an object or phenomenon.” It’s not accurate because reality is the very basis of all objects and phenomena. Inasmuch as we are living in the state of duality vision (except for whatever moments adepts may abide in Rigpa), objects and phenomena are all there is. The purpose and value of these teachings is to present a specific method of inquiry-qua-mindfulness that can reveal the unreal aspect of how things seem. Things are what they are, but not what they seem. So, if everyday objects and phenomena were actually separate from reality there would be no way to realize oneself.

        2. There definitely is a confrontation with reality if you would correctly understand what was intended by that linguistic device. The threshold that demarcates one moment of being in the state of duality-vision from another moment of being in the state of non-duality is, in fact, a distinct and unique experience. I characterized this as a confrontation because our dualistic mind typically offers resistance at that important moment. If this threshold experience is permitted to crest, by not reifying it, then it will not have been a phenomenon.

        3. There is a real nucleus of meanings. Instead of nucleus, I could have said the meaning of meanings. In any case, it is available to those who can fathom the distance between what seems to be, and what is.

        4. It’s difficult to know for sure what the Oracle of Delphi was up to. “Know Thyself”, in that context (which was the one I used), does not necessarily posit a self as a real phenomenon. But if you are suggesting that living beings have no real identity whatsoever, then you are at odds with the Dzogchen view.

        By the way, the Oracle gave three counsels: “Know Thyself”, “None to Excess”, and “To Pledge brings Mischief Near”

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