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In Praise of Rabbit Horns 

-Dominic Kuan Hwee Chua from Singapore

Of late I’ve been thinking a lot about rabbit horns. Yes – those objects that routinely pop up in Buddhist philosophical discussions as an example of something which is not even worth the effort to refute or negate, because – as the reasoning goes – they are non-existent on the conventional level, have never existed in the first place, and never will. According to the classic Buddhist commentators, our efforts would be better directed towards things that exist on the conventional level, which people *actually* grasp to.  

Mipham Rinpoche, in his commentary on Candrakirti’s Madhyamakāvatāra (Introduction to the Middle Way, the text which most RYI students – everyone from the second year of the BA programme up to the MA prep level – are studying this year), puts it this way (italics mine):  

If the pot’s emptiness of true existence is described…in the sense of a conventionally existent phenomenon being empty of something that is, even conventionally, non-existent (like a rabbit being empty of horns), once again this does not require reasoning directed at the ultimate; it is established by valid cognition operating entirely on the conventional level. In this kind of refutation, the arguments of neither one nor many and so on have no place. How can a rabbit’s horns be investigated by breaking them down into their constituent parts? How can the argument of dependent arising be applied to them?1 

Two things strike me about this passage: firstly, that Mipham Rinpoche (as with his Tibetan and Indian predecessors) makes the key assumption that the primary objects that we should focus our attention on are physically existent objects, or at least objects that have existence on the conventional level. Rabbit horns are thus dismissed as being rather silly fantasies that are not worthy of Madhyamaka’s ultimate-level reasonings.  

An even deeper assumption which seems to underlie this first assumption is that our grasping exists only in relation to existent things: prove the non-existence of an object, and the grasping vanishes (at least in theory). In terms of the four-cornered Nagarjunian tetralemma (that things exist, that they do not exist, that they have both existence and non-existence, and that they have neither existence nor non-existence), a lot more effort seems to have been invested into disproving the existence of things, rather than the other 3 corners of the tetralemma. Mipham’s point about the rabbit horns seems to indicate this rhethorical bent or bias that focuses on existence much more than non-existence. 

While this tendency might have been perfectly justifiable in an earlier day and age, our present times seem to indicate that non-existent things like rabbit horns are in far greater need of refutation and negation. Here I’m thinking in particular of youth-oriented video games and anime like PUBG and Pokemon, and social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. No one could possibly mistake the game avatars, their accessories or the game worlds that the avatars inhabit as having any sort of real conventional-level existence, but yet the grasping which they induce is undeniably present, pervasive and all-powerful.  

Videogames are just one example. One thinks too, of other non-existent things that form the bulk of our grasping today – a grasping to a perfect set of exam grades or a credentials from an Ivy League/Oxbridge University, to brands over physical objects (an Adidas bag, rather than an unbranded bag, say), or to the intangible notions of social class or ‘coolness’ – whose membership these credentials and brands signal and confer. To insurance policies and investment schemes and stocks and shares. To particular identities and labels. The list goes on.  

What I am trying to suggest here is that the bias against careful consideration of non-existent objects could do with some reconsideration. If we have taken the Bodhisattva vow to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings, then in a day and age when Mark Zuckerberg and the-company-that-was-called-Facebook-and-is-now-called-Meta is busy turning into (non-existent) reality the notion of the Metaverse, then we have to think seriously about how grasping to non-existent objects is perfectly possible and likely. How can the 4 or 5 great Madhyamaka reasonings be reapplied and made relevant to a world-going-virtual, and to a world caught up in identity politics? Perhaps it’s high time we set aside our beloved pots and pillars and take a long hard look at those much-denigrated rabbit horns again.  

References: 

Candrakīrti and Mipham Rinpoche. Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti’s  

Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Jamgön Mipham. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Committee. New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2004. 

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