Which Buddhists say that there are no conventionally existent wholes, and what's the best reason for the claim?

My "whole" I mean something more than the sum of its parts, an object that does not reduce to its parts.

  • I do not understand your question. What do you mean with "wholes", to start with? Jan 25 '17 at 18:30
  • @TenzinDorje so e.g. if X is a whole with parts Y and Z then an analysis of X can fill in for an analysis of Y and Z. the rest of the question is just gumpf, so don't worry about it
    – user2512
    Jan 25 '17 at 19:06
  • Could you please elaborate on what is meant on these words: conventironally existent, wholes, inexistent practice, annihilationism -Thank you :) Metta :-)
    – Lowbrow
    Jan 25 '17 at 20:16
  • 1
    @Uuu they are standard terms in the scholarship.
    – user2512
    Jan 25 '17 at 20:43
  • conventionally existent = good for empirical prediction. wholes = a means to make sense of parts that isn't the part itself. inexistent = without being or not to be found. practice = meditation. annihilationism = the idea that there is nothing left of the conventional self when we die [note: this last one means that there is, exists, no conventional self because any "self" must be said to be completely different each moment]. my apologies if any of those have unusual definitions @Uuu
    – user2512
    Jan 25 '17 at 20:59

Any sect of Buddhism which emphasises the emptiness of all things probably says that there are no existent wholes but some sects would say that there are conventionally existent wholes. In other words, we can only talk about their existence from a conventional perspective.

Here's a nice description which talks about a car's existence and its emptiness

You're walking through town and you get to a street where you see a car. Is there a car? Sure thing! That's why we look left and right before crossing the street, and it would be dangerous to say that "there is no car" (without further explanation).

But if we take one car aside and take a closer look, there's no such thing as a car. The windshield isn't it, the wheels aren't it, the chassis isn't it, neither is the engine. What we call a car is just a bundle, a construct not only physically but conceptually.

It's a point which can be difficult to convey. Something is there which will hit you when you cross the street, we call this a car. On the other hand, if we take that car and dismantle it into its pieces we can not find any piece which is the essential car-like-nature.

This is the same as when we look at the self. We can investigate all five aggregates (body, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness) and there is no inerrant soul or "me" to be found. However, we can still talk about the "me" existing by convention.


There are conventionally existent objects. Whether you call them wholes or parts does not make a difference, since a part is also a whole and a whole a part. For instance, the petals of a flower are a part of the flower, but a petal is a whole [as a petal].

Whatever is an object found by a conventional valid cognizer (such as the eye-consciousness, the ear-consciousness, and so forth) exists conventionally. Since I can see you, you are conventionally existent.

However, no object can withstands ultimate analysis. Another way of saying is that a cognizer analyzing the ultimate will find only emptiness of true existence. For instance, you will not be found by a cognizer validly analyzing "are you your body? are you your anger? are you your feelings? etc." but you are found by an eye-consciousness (since I see you). In the same way that sound is not apprehended by an eye-consciousness, no conventional truth is found by a mind of ultimate analysis.

That is the Madhyamika-Prasangika view. This being said, there is no Buddhist school that posits there is no conventionally existent objects.

  • do you have a reference for that last claim? sorry tio ask, i'm just skeptical, if by object you mean "whole". and maybe even if you mean "is" to be "exist". is there really no "school" which says e.g. that atoms don't conventionally exist, only appear in illusions? that wouldn't entail that all talk of atoms is likewise not conventionally true, i think
    – user2512
    Jan 25 '17 at 21:10
  • My main references on the topic belong to the textual genre of 'Presentations of Tenets'. For instance, Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsen's Presentation of Tenets (a short one). Jan 26 '17 at 9:43
  • @user3293056 "Atoms don't conventionally exist" does not mean "wholes don't conventionally exist", so it is another question. Now, there are refutations of directionnally partless particles, but these are not atoms. There are also refutations of external establishment, but I do not think it answers your question. Jan 26 '17 at 9:46
  • "does not mean" i wasn't saying it did.
    – user2512
    Jan 26 '17 at 10:54
  • @user3293056 What were you saying then? You asked a questions about wholes. I take it a flower is a whole, but it is also a part of a field. A leaf is a whole, but it is also a part of a flower, and so forth. My answer was: no school posits that wholes (objects) do not exist conventionally. Positing so would be claiming they are utterly non-existent, and would be nihilist. Jan 26 '17 at 18:48

The standard Buddhist picture is that

  • only momentary particulars are caused,

so given that

  • only causal things have any existence,

it follows that wholes have no existence. You can find arguments for these two claims pretty easy.

  • More than that, all existent, whether whole or part, to be worded conventionally must get the attributes of the 6 senses. Thus the Buddhist instead stops arguing whether there's existent independently existed outside of all the senses, which is the opposite of the scientist who is investigating the outside "objects", or the non-dividable "whole", in your word. Or the Trancendental, in Kant. Feb 2 '17 at 5:23
  • As @Tenzin Dorje used the flower analogy, to add is that, if you delete color and shape (eye vijnana 眼識), texture (body vijnana 身識), scent (nose vijnana 鼻識); taste (tongue vijnana 舌識), "flower is silent" (ear vijnana 耳識) and "it is a flower!" (cognition vijnana 意識), then the flower or the petal doesn't exist at all! Feb 2 '17 at 5:28

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