Tiny Vajra/ Vajra Splinter – Analyses of Madhyamaka

(ed. note: The Washington, D.C. Khandro Rinpoche study group was reviewing recordings of the Lotus Garden Shedra in 2011 where Dzigar Kongtrol Rinpoche was teaching on Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way, Chapter 5 and start of Chapter 6 and talking about an argument known as the ‘tiny vajra’.  It turns out there wasn’t much on the Web about this topic. There was a flurry of emails about this topic, which I thought an excellent explanation of a difficult topic for thick-headed yogis like myself. These have been edited into one voice in this teaching below.  The main author(s) wish to remain anonymous.  May this be of benefit. – JTR/LWWD)

Question: What IS  the ‘tiny vajra’ thing Dzigar Kongtrol keeps referring to?

Ah, so I immediately ran down into my basement to find my ancient copy of Thrangu Rinpoche’s Open Door to Emptiness, a Discussion of Madhyamaka Logic.

It says in the introduction where the book came from (I’ve added some words in [brackets]):

Mipham Rinpoche, the great [19th century] Nyingma scholar, brought together the essential points of all the major commentaries and arranged them in a more readily understandable way under the heading of “The Four Analyses.” [which is a part of MR’s encyclopedic Gateway to Knowledge.] Based on Mipham’s presentation, Thrangu Rinpoche gave the teachings he has entitled The Open Door to Emptiness to a group of his Western disciples in Boudhanath, Nepal, in June, 1977.

Now, for  the question of the ‘tiny vajra’: Chapter Five gives an overview of the four analyses, and the first paragraph goes thusly:

Let us now turn to the “four analyses of Madhyamaka.” The first of these analyses, or logical arguments, is called the “vajra splinter” or sometimes “the tiny vajra.” It is compared to a vajra because a vajra is indestructible and can cut through anything. This refers specifically to examining the source, or where things come from.

This is a short chapter, just four pages long, because it gives only an overview of the 4 Analyses. Don’t worry, each analysis is given a chapter of its own, later in the book. And our vajra splinter is given two chapters, illustrating two ways of executing this logic.

I’ll give my summary of Rinpoche’s four-page overview below, and then I’ll explain one of the two chapters on the vajra splinter. But first, here’s a footnote from the overview that helps us understand the 4 Analyses.

In Buddhist logic there is an emphasis on everything having:
  1.  a primary cause (Tib. gyu) or causal condition,
  2. secondary, or supporting conditions (Tib. khyen),
  3.  and finally an effect (Tib. de bu).

For example, if we have an oak tree, it did not come from nowhere, but it had to have a primary cause which is the acorn. But the acorn alone did not cause an oak tree to grow because it also had to have the supporting conditions of soil, water, sunlight, the right temperature, etc. In the four analyses the first analysis is of this causal condition and the second analysis is of the effect, often called the result.

I omitted from the above footnote a second paragraph, which describes a little bit how the Abhidharma expands on this. So now below is a paraphrase and condensation of that four-page chapter 5 in Thrangu Rinpoche’s Open Door to Emptiness:

The 4 Analyses

  1. The first of the four analyses is to examine the cause, i.e. “the source, or where things come from,” as Thrangu Rinpoche said above. Furthermore: “This is referred to as the ‘vajra splinter’ because with this one analysis we can recognize the emptiness of everything from the great Mt. Meru right down to the smallest atom.
  2. “The second analysis of the Madhyamaka is to examine the results or outcomes of the various causes to see how they came about and what their nature is. . . This argument was first formulated by the Indian scholar Jñānagarbha.” [This is pronounced “juh-NYA-na -gar-ba,” meaning “the form of wisdom.”]
  3. “The third analysis of the Madhyamaka is examining the essential quality of a phenomenon to see if it is one thing or many things.”
  4. “The fourth analysis is to recognize the interdependent nature of everything. This interdependent nature is something like relativity . . . Things that are interdependent exist only in a relative sense because they . . . are always dependent on circumstances.”

Analysis #1: Tiny Vajra, a.k.a. Vajra Splinter

So finally now, here’s your answer to “What is the ‘tiny vajra’?”   In short, it is the first of the above four “analyses.” Thrangu Rinpoche gives us a nice explanation of it in chapter four, with an example the Buddha used, of a cart. Rinpoche says a cart is very useful here, because it is an object we can all agree on: “It is used to carry things from one place to another. But if we examine a cart, we see that this ‘cart’ is merely a designation that we have placed on it, a convenient mental label. There is no truly existent cart.” Rinpoche also explains that there’s more to the notion of a “cause” than what meets the eye:

“If we look for the cause of any given thing in accordance with the seven analyses given [in chapter four], that is,

  • to see if the thing comes from a source at one with itself,
  • from something other than itself, 
  • from something between itself and the parts which make it up,
  • and so on,

we find that there is no independent factor which can rightly be designated as the specific source of any phenomenon.”

The above quote shows how three of the seven analyses each describes a different angle on causation. I guess Rinpoche doesn’t elaborate the other four, because it must seem obvious.  (To him, maybe. To less-talented yogis like myself, not so much.) Now, here are the “seven analyses,” based on the example of a cart from chapter four:

(a) First, the cart is made of parts: wheels, a bed, a railing, and a pole to hitch the draft animals to. But none of these things by itself is (or causes) the cart’s identity. So the wheel is not a cart, nor is the rail, etc. (Yes, this could also lead into #3 of the 4 Analyses, but let’s focus on the vajra splinter, and how these parts can or cannot be the “source” of a cart.)

(b) The cart doesn’t exist without these things. If we were to look elsewhere for a cart that doesn’t have these parts we’d fail. The notion of a ‘cart’ is just a “functional designation” (or label) for an arrangement of parts. The point of the second analysis is that to have a cart, we need all these parts.

(c) But this “functional designation” of ‘cartness’ doesn’t exist, either, because where is this ‘cartness’ we’re talking about? That is, the identity of the cart is “merely an imputation, with no actuality behind it” — Furthermore, there can’t be any qualities to be attached to this so-called cart, because it’s just something we cooked up in our minds. In another example, if a certain person doesn’t exist, then that person’s qualities don’t exist, either. So ‘cartness’ doesn’t cause a cart.

(d) Well, if there’s no ‘cartness’ in the cart, then maybe we can find ‘cartness’ in the parts, for example the wheel. But the wheel can’t speak for the whole cart, it just squeaks on its own axle. Just like before, when we tried to find the true nature of this cart in the whole of the cart, now we can’t find ‘cart-nature’ within any of the parts, either.

(e) OK, what if we turn it around and say the essential nature of the cart is dependent upon all its parts, all at once, at the same time? Well, that implies that when the parts are lying around on the ground there’s no essential nature of cartness, but when the parts are all assembled properly, then voila! Cartness exists! But we now have created an additional part out of nothing –something we call ‘cartness.’ Now that’s pretty magical, something out of nothing! But that’s not what really happens. We just have the original parts, no more than that. — So there is no essential nature that’s dependent on the parts.

(f) The parts randomly assembled don’t make a cart, either;

(g) And it isn’t the shape of the cart that makes a cart — i.e. a stage-prop or a drawing of a cart probably won’t do well on the road.

Then Thrangu Rinpoche summarizes the seven analyses of the cart again:

(a)   There is no essential reality in a thing as a whole, just as there is no reality in a cart as a whole;

(b)   There is no reality which is distinct from the sum of the parts assembled;

(c)    There is no real possession of a whole by its parts, or [vice versa,] of parts by an imagined whole;

(d)   There is no reality on which the parts are dependent;

(e)    There is no reality dependent on the parts;

(f)     There is no true self to the mere collection of parts, jsut as the parts of a cart randomly assembled do not constitute a cart;

(g)    There is no reality in the shape of an object when the parts are correctly assembled.

So that’s the seven-fold analysis in the “tiny vajra” / “vajra splinter.” I don’t know about you, but all this leaves me a little uncomfortable, stammering, “But, but . . . If I’m walking on the road to Boudhanath and my feet start to hurt, I’m not going to decline an offer to ride in a cart. I don’t care whether that cart exists or not!” So, anticipating this, the compassionate Buddha-emanation Thrangu Rinpoche reassures me, that it’s OK to accept a ride in that cart: “On the conventional level of reality, . . . we can say that the cart exists. On the ultimate level of reality, we know that this cart is just a label and the cart has no inherent reality as a cart.” Thinking about it, if that cart didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t exist either, and there would be no feet to have that pain. Huh—gotta think about that one.

The historical context of this ‘cart’ analogy is kinda interesting: Thrangu Rinpoche says the example of a cart was used by Shakyamuni Buddha in a rather brief form, in a Pali sutra called Questions of King Melinda. It is said to record an encounter between the yogi Nagasena and Alexander the Great, presumably in Afghanistan, somewhere (maybe Bamiyan?). And then later, Chandrakirti expanded the cart analogy and explained its significance in full — This was presumably in his Madhyamaka-avatara, “Introduction to the Middle Way.”

I’m not going to elaborate any more on this vajra splinter, but rest assured there’s more to say. And indeed Thrangu Rinpoche does just that, using all of chapter six to both explain the famous “tetra-lemma*” logic of the Madhyamaka, and to use it on the vajra splinter, again disproving that anything arises from a cause. It’s an interesting chapter, because Rinpoche also shows how several philosophical schools are refuted. – Uh, did I say before, how much of a genius our Geshe-Khenpo Thrangu Rinpoche is?

*the tetra-lemma, a.k.a. The ‘Four Extremes’:

  1.     Being
  2.     Non-being
  3.     Both being and non-being
  4.     Neither being and non-being




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Filed under DC Khandro Rinpoche study group, Dharma teachings

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