Śāntideva states, “Merit comes from a Conqueror who is like an illusion in the same way as it would if he was truly existent.” (IX.9) In other words, you do not need to posit the inherent existence of even the Buddha for there to be merit and demerit. Merit and demerit are dependently originated and have no inherent existence, but they are certainly phenomena that are experienced.

This leads to the first question, which is “If all is illusory, how can there be karma and rebirth?” This is considered to be asked by hīnayāna Buddhists who believe that the dharmas intrinsically exist. The reply, “Even an illusion persists for as long as the concurrences of its causes” (IX.10) means that while inherent existence is illusory, there is certainly a continuum of states that nominally can be called a sentient being.

The next question is asked by an advocate of the Consciousness-Only school of Buddhism. “If consciousness does not exist, then there is no evil in, for example, murdering an illusory man.” (IX.11) Does the teaching of emptiness really mean that we are unreal in the same way that characters in a video game are unreal? If this is true, then killing other people would be of no more consequence than killing people in a video game. The response of Śāntideva points out that the crucial difference is that living beings are sentient, they can feel fear and pain. (IX.11) The ability to feel and think does not make sentience any less illusory. In other words, while a crucial difference morally, sentience is still dependently originated and not inherently existentent.

The Consciousness-Only advocate is convinced, however, that consciousness is the one thing that is real. The advocate responds, “An illusory conscious mind is not possible, since spells and the like cannot produce such an illusion.” (IX.12) Today we might also argue, that since we do not have the technology to create actual sentience or an authentic AI, so the sentience of living beings is not illusory the way video game characters are, therefore the analogy that sentient beings are like illusions is false. There must be some quality of consciousness that is truly real because we cannot replicate it. However, Śāntideva replies, “Illusions are of different kinds, arising from different causes. Nowhere is there a single cause which has the power to produce everything.” (IX. 12-13) The point of the analogy is not that sentient beings are merely magical illusions or like video game characters (which pushes the analogy too hard). The point is that sentient beings can seem to be one way (inherently existent) but actually be another (caused and conditioned). Like video game characters, sentient beings arise due to causes and conditions, but unlike video game characters the causes and conditions are of a kind that produces sentience, a kind that is so complex that even today we are still not able to replicate true sentience.

 The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks:

“If one liberated according to ultimate truth remains subject to cyclic existence according to conventional truth, then, in that case, even a Buddha would be subject to cyclic existence. So what is the point of the path of conduct leading to Awakening?” (IX.13-14)

In other words, ultimately everything is empty of inherent existence and there is no bondage to samsara or liberation through nirvana, but conventionally there is the experience of the sufferings of samsara and the liberation of nirvana. The question can be restated as, “If we are ultimately already free of samsara because everything is only emptiness, then why practice Buddhism?” Śāntideva responds, “Because illusion is not stopped unless its causes are stopped, whereas, even according to conventional truth, illusion is not possible when its causes are destroyed.” (IX.14-15) It is a mistake to think that even though ultimately samsaric existence is not intrinsic existence, that does not mean we do not need to practice to get rid of delusion. Delusions are not inherently existent but they will persist if their causes and conditions persist. Buddhist practice will prevent the causally conditioned arising of delusion, and thus samsara. There is no contradiction between the ultimate lack of inherent existence and the causally conditioned persistent delusion that beings and things have inherent existence and therefore can be objects of attachments or aversion, and this delusion can be eliminated by eliminating its causes. The Tiantai view of this would be that illusions will not completely cease to exist, but will be transformed into magical displays of skillful means utilized by the advanced bodhisattvas and buddhas who have awakened to their lack of inherent existence. The view presented by Śāntideva seems to be the view of the ultimate as “mere emptiness.”

The Consciousness-Only school then asks, “When even false perception does not exist, by what is illusion perceived?” (IX.15) In other words, the Consciousness-Only school insists that there needs to be a real perceiver, or mind, even if there are no real objects but only illusory objects. Śāntideva asks in return, “When, according to you, illusion itself does not exist, what is perceived?” to which the Consciousness-Only advocate replies, “It is an aspect of the mind itself, even if it is different from reality.” (IX.16) In other words, the inherently existing mind mistakenly perceives itself as the multitude of external objects. Śāntideva then replies, “If illusion is the same as the mind, what is seen by what? Moreover, it is taught by the Protector of the world that mind does not perceive mind.” (IX.17) The claim that mind perceives (or misperceives) itself doesn’t make sense because the subjective mind cannot make of itself an object, and there is nothing else for it to perceive according to the Consciousness-Only school. The point here is that experience arises due to the causes and conditions of a relation between a perceiving subject and a perceived object and neither of those needs to be inherently existent for there to be such a relationship. In fact, perceiver and perceived can only be spoken of in terms of an interrelationship and so neither can simply be what it is without the other. To state this even more simply: a subject cannot objectify itself. Perception is always relational and therefore rules out the inherent existence (which is not relational but independent and unchanging) of either a subject or an object.

The argument about the ability of the mind to perceive itself continues in verses 18-22. Śāntideva uses two analogies. The first is of a knife that cannot cut itself. The second is of a flame or ray of light that cannot illuminate itself because it was never concealed in darkness in the first place. The Consciousness-Only advocate objects by appealing to a different analogy, that of a blue stone that is not made blue by something else. What is meant is that some things, like a blue stone, can confer a quality upon themselves, like blueness. Therefore, there can also be a consciousness that is simply conscious of itself. Śāntideva responds by pointing out that blue stones do not turn themselves blue or bring themselves into being, so the blue stone is not a valid example of independence or something conferring or turning its own quality upon itself. He continues to press the point that you need a mind to know that something is illuminated, but you cannot catch the subjective mind that knows as an object to be known. To speak of mind or consciousness in and of itself (without a relation of knower and known) is as nonsensical as speaking of a barren woman’s daughter. As soon as you turn the subject or knower into an object or something known, then it is no longer the subject or knower. The knower cannot be the known in the very same act of knowing. Consciousness is always consciousness of another. It could also be pointed out that what we know in any given moment is not even the present moment but the end product of a process of perception that began in a previous moment, even if the time lag is measured only in milliseconds. Again, the point is that consciousness cannot catch itself in the act of knowing.

The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “If there is no self-perception, how is consciousness remembered?” Śāntideva replies, “Memory comes from connection with another experience; just as a bear that wakes up from hibernation feels the effects of having been bitten by a shrew while it was asleep.” (IX.23) What the Consciousness-Only advocate is asking is how can we be self-conscious or self-aware if mind or consciousness doesn’t perceive itself. Śāntideva’s then uses the analogy of a hibernating bear that is unaware of being bitten by a shrew, but feels the effect of the bite when it awakens, which is to say that mind or consciousness only indirectly knows itself, as it remembers or is conscious of previous moments of being conscious of something else. It is not, however, directly aware of itself in the present moment, though the immediate past measured in milliseconds or even seconds ago may seem like the present moment.

The Consciousness-Only advocate then insists, “The mind must be able to perceive itself because it knows the existence of other minds, for instance through ESP gained through yogic concentration.” (IX.24) According to the sutras, one of the supernatural powers attained by yogic practitioners as well as arhats, advanced bodhisattvas, and buddhas is the ability to read the minds of others. The Consciousness-Only school takes this as proof that mind can perceive mind, but Śāntideva responds, “Seeing distant things does not necessarily mean you will see things that are closer, just as when you use a magic eye-balm that enables you to find buried treasure you will not see the balm itself.” (IX.24) A more contemporary analogy would be a contact lense that we do not see but which enables us to see other things more clearly. The point being that what enables perception may not itself be perceivable, so the psychic ability of a mind to perceive other minds does not prove that a mind can perceive itself.

Śāntideva then clarifies his position, saying:

“It is not the process of perception that is being contested here, but what is being refuted is the belief that the process involves anything with an inherent existence, as that is the cause of suffering. It is inconsistent to claim that illusory appearances are the same as the mind but also different. Just as an illusion can be experienced even though it is not real in the same way as it appears, the mind that perceives illusion is not real in the way it seems to be. You think that without inherent existence there would only be space and no knower or known, but if there is only mind, how do the supposed non-existent illusory appearances arise at all? If you depend on things beings inherently real, then in saying that only the mind is real that means it is always free of delusions, everyone is already a buddha and there is no point in following even the Consciousness-Only teaching.” (IX.25-29)

There is no need to establish an inherently existent real thing in order to establish the flow of causality, wherein there is delusion and awakening. In fact, trying to establish something as inherently real will instead lead to the kind of contradiction which is pointed out here – where Buddhism becomes unnecessary because only mind is said to be real and delusions are unreal so there cannot really be a deluded mind at all.

The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “Even if we recognize that everything is like an illusion, how does this help get rid of defilement, when lust for a woman who is an illusion still arises in the one who created her?” (IX.30) The issue here is whether or not it really does anyone any good to realize that everything is empty. Śāntideva responds:

“That happens because the influence of the defilements and what is cognized has not been destroyed in her creator, so that at the time of seeing her the influence of emptiness in him is weak. The influence of phenomena is removed by employing the influence of emptiness, and even that is later eradicated by inculcating the realization, ‘nothing really exists’ (in its own right, or inherently).” (IX.31-32)

This means that if we contemplate the truth of emptiness long enough we will overcome our instinctual assumption that there are instrinsically existing phenomena. Finally, we must realize that even emptiness is itself empty of any intrinsic existence as noted above. The Consciousness-Only advocate then asks, “But if nothing really exists then how do we perceive anything?” (IX.33) To which Śāntideva replies, “When neither an inherently existent entity (being) nor the non-existence of an entity (non-being) preoccupies the mind, since there is no other alternative, having nothing more to grasp, the mind becomes tranquil.” (IX.34) Basically, Śāntideva is saying that there is no need to worry about it. From the perspective of Buddhism, the important thing is not to figure out out how or why the process of perception works, which would be the proper subject for neurology, but how to overcome our attachment and aversion and above all the underlying instinctive assumption that there are real things with intrinsic existence to be attached to or have aversion for. When this instinctive assumption is overcome by realizing the truth of emptiness, then we will stop worrying about whether things really exist or not and will attain true peace of mind.

Śāntideva then states, “The Buddha is not a self either, he benefits others selflessly just as a wish-fulfilling gem or a magical tree, or an anti-poison pillar does.” (IX.35-37) To which the hīnayāna advocate rejoins, “How could worship offered to something which has no consciousness be beneficial?” (IX.38) Śāntideva replies, “Whether or not the Buddha is present or already achieved final nirvana, whether only an appearance or truly existent, worship of the Buddha is a meritorious act.” (IX.38-39) Like the Consciousness-Only advocate, the hīnayānist seems to equate the self with consciousness, but Śāntideva has already argued that it makes no sense to say that consciousness is a self or has a self-nature. Instead, he is pointing out that it is not the reality or instrinsic existence of the Buddha that matters, but the intention of the practitioner who has a high regard for the Buddha and what the Buddha represents. To have and express faith in the Three Treasures will lead to the bodhisattva being motivated to practice and achieve buddhahood. Put simply, it is not the kind of existence that counts (real or provisional), it is the thought that counts.