Vajra Splinters / Diamond Slivers Reasoning – Analyses of Madhyamaka – Khenmo Trinlay

(ed. note: I had been asked some senior student friends for an explanation of the Buddhist logical argument called by some “The Tiny Vajra” (also know as the ‘Vajra Splinters’), and got this response from Khenmo Trinlay Chödron, who is well known as a teacher and Dharma scholar, and for being the editor of several books by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche including what many regard as the definitive translation of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation.  Khenmo-la said I could post this piece she wrote several years ago if it seemed like it could be of benefit. – JTR/LWWD)


We are trying to determine the ultimate nature of phenomena: reality as it (actually) is, not necessarily the way we ordinarily perceive it. Vajra Splinters is just one of many lines of analysis that examine this question. Others look at whether motion or activity can actually happen, some examine “where” or “when” phenomena can be said to exist. Some cut phenomena into infinitesimal pieces to determine whether matter exists. Others look to concepts such as dependent origination or impermanence for answers.

The point of all the different types of analysis is to break down our stubborn view of reality. This, in turn, will reduce our afflicting emotions; suffering is also proportionately reduced and enlightenment is that much closer.

Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen wrote:

There are three afflicting emotions, also called the three poisons: attachment, hatred, and ignorance. Ignorance is the root cause of the existence of samsara. Ignorance veils the clear awareness of mind from seeing the ultimate nature of all phenomena. As a result, all phenomena, particularly oneself, are perceived as permanent, unique, and real. Because of that, attachment to oneself and to things that one likes develops. Anything that arises contrary to this receives aversion and one becomes very protective. We struggle constantly in this unending realm of suffering.

When we contemplate the nature of all phenomena, then the particular object to which we are attached [or which we dislike] shifts. The way we related to the object no longer exists, so there is no meaning or benefit to remaining attached [or repelled]. Like dew on a blade of grass, it evaporates. Rather than getting upset or worrying about this, just see it as the true nature of that phenomenon.

Here, we are investigating whether there is such a thing as phenomena with inherent existence, or existence that is independent of factors other than itself. Can we find anything that exists exclusively from its own side? Recall the definition of inherent: an essential characteristic belonging to a thing by its very nature. Can we define any phenomenon for which existence is an essential characteristic or for which existence is part of its very nature?

We start by asking, “What is a ‘self’ anyway?” Where might one come from? In other words, is a self a result that has been caused?


A phenomenon (we’ll call it X) is either caused or uncaused. If X is caused, then the suspects that might be identified as the causal agent are X itself, something other than itself (named Y), or both itself and other working together. There are philosophical schools, that is to say reasonable people who have sincerely looked at this question, that believe in each of these possibilities.

  1.  X is caused by itself (Samkhya – nonbuddhists)
  2. X is caused by Y (Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra -the mistaken (according to the view of the Madhyamaka) Buddhists)
  3.  X is caused by itself and Y together (Jains – nonbuddhists)
  4. X has no cause (Carvaka – nonbuddhists)

Nagarjuna in Refutation of Objections: “If I were to make a claim, then you could find fault with me. I do not make any claims, therefore my position is faultless.”

1. X is caused by itself

Basically meaningless. What’s the point? The cause and the result would be identical. If X already exists, then what would be the point of originating itself?

If phenomena originate from themselves, and then X does not exist yet. The “itself” from which X is supposed to arise can’t be there yet, so there is no cause for it to arise. How could it possibly arise?

Another illogical consequence of asserting origination from self would be that the origination would be endless. If X originates from itself without any other intervening factors (because that would be other-caused), then what would cause it to start or stop?

2. X is caused by Y

If X could originate from something that is completely other than itself, then we could conclude that anything can originate from anything else. Example: Conventionally, we say that sprouts come from seeds (something different from itself) B seeds are the cause and sprouts are the result. A stone is different from a sprout in the same way that a seed is different from a sprout. So why not say that a sprout could originate from a stone?

Asserting that X is caused by Y assumes that origination itself has been proven. However, origination itself hasn’t been established yet, so this argument fails because it’s underlying assumption fails.

Is there even such a thing as being different or being other? Common knowledge would say yes, but has it been investigated and established logically? There’s a problem with time sequencing.

* If two things exist simultaneously, they cannot have a producer and produced relationship. Y has to exist before X does in order for it to be able to cause X. That much seems clear.

* Now consider Y by itself before X comes into being. How could Y and X have any sort of relationship (causal or otherwise) when one is present and the other doesn’t exist? It’s just a fantasy. If X doesn’t exist yet, Y hasn’t caused anything so can’t be called a cause.

* Finally, look at Y after X has come into being. Because X exists, Y can now be called a cause. What changed? The existence of X caused Y to become a cause. In other words, the effect caused the cause, not the other way around.

Variation on the time sequencing problem. In order to say that X and Y are different, both have to exist at the same time. Otherwise, there is no basis on which to establish a relationship.

* At the time of Y-seed before X-sprout, what is Y different from? Nothing, so you can’t say they are different.

* After X-sprout exists, Y-seed no longer exists. So what is X different from? Nothing, so you can’t say they are different from that direction either.

3. X is caused by both itself and Y

Causation by self didn’t work (see #1). Causation by other didn’t work (see #2). How could putting them together work? 0 + 0 isn’t going to add up to anything other than 0. If two things individually cannot be established, then obviously the pair of them is not going to be a proper position to hold.

4. X has no cause

If origination had no causes and conditions whatsoever, why wouldn’t things just happen continuously? Or never? This option leaves us with no explanation of why things sometimes comes about and sometimes they don’t.

Therefore, causation is merely an imputation, not reality.



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Filed under Dharma teachings, Drikung Kagyu

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