The Gelug Prasangika & Svatantrika Views of Emptiness

What’s voidness (emptiness) all about? What is it talking about? It’s talking about how do you establish or prove that something exists. How do you know it exists? How do you prove it exists? What establishes its existence?

Most translations present voidness as being about how things exist: Do things have inherent existence? Is it this type of existence, is it that type of existence? That’s one way of discussing it. But you can also look at it a little bit more technically, which is revealed by the terminology, both in Sanskrit and Tibetan. And the word that’s translated as existence, whether you have these expressions like true existence, inherent existence, and so on – is the same word (it’s a variation of the word grammatically) as the word which means an affirmation or a proof of something, you prove something. It's the Sanskrit word siddha, Tibetan "drubpa" (grub-pa). So it’s how you establish something.

How do you establish or prove that something exists? The lower tenet systems say, “Well, it produces an effect (or these sort of things), so you know that it exists. That establishes that it exists.” Now, in the Madhyamaka schools, Svatantrika and Prasangika, they say that “What establishes that it exists? Well, it can be mentally labeled. It is what a mental label refers to. What establishes that it exists? Well, we have a concept, we have a word for it, and it’s the referent object of the word or concept.”

So because we have a conventionally accepted word or concept for something, you can establish that it conventionally exists as what the word or concept for it refers to.The example I love to use for this is jealousy. What establishes that there’s such a thing as jealousy? Well, you think about it. Think of our experience of things. In the experience of living beings – now, that’s a huge spectrum of experience. How do you divide that into things?

So the cave people got together, and they took acoustic patterns, and somebody got the idea that this is going to be a word and this is going to have meaning. And so arbitrarily they make up a definition, and they take the whole spectrum of experience – they’re probably talking about human experience, maybe a little bit of animal experience as well – and they arbitrarily make a line on this side and on that side, and they say, “This parcel of experience, that’s going to be the meaning that we’re going to assign to this totally meaningless, arbitrary acoustic pattern, and that’s a word.” And the definition is also made up by the mind, because they made up the definition of it. Every group of cave people had different conventions, so they divided human experience and animal experience differently, with different boundaries. And language evolved that way, and conceptual thinking evolved that way. Animals have concepts too – otherwise the cow could never find its barn or identify its baby – but they don’t do it with acoustic patterns; they do it with smells or visual things. But anyway it’s the same thing, the same idea. It’s arbitrary. Convention is what we call it.

So now we have this convention arbitrarily set up by a group of cave people, and they take the absolutely meaningless acoustic pattern “je-al-ou-sy” – jealousy – make it into a word, assign it a meaning (write in the dictionary that that is the meaning of it, the defining characteristic of what it is), and then there is this thing jealousy. And so we all feel jealous, and we think that jealousy is a thing and that it’s established from its own side. Nothing establishes it from its own side. There are no boundaries in human experience or animal experience that parses it into things, although conventionally you experience jealousy.

Everything is like that, any object. Table. What’s a table? There are so many different items that could be called a table. Some people would call this couch a table because it has four legs, and you can put something on it and it will hold it, and you could eat off of this. So this is a table. What’s a table? Out of all the items and things, you sort of make up a defining characteristic, and now you have a category of table. Okay? So it’s convention only.

Now, Madhyamaka says that “What establishes that things exist, that there is such a thing as jealousy? Well, it’s the referent object of the word or concept jealousy.” In other words, the emotion jealousy is established as what the word and concept jealousy refers to. That’s jealousy.

When we talk about mental labeling, there are three things involved:

  • the basis for labeling,
  • the label, which is just an acoustic pattern or a concept with a conventionally assigned definition to it, defining characteristic to it.
  • the referent object of the label, what the concept jealousy and the word jealousy refer to. But what they refer to is really like an illusion because it’s not the basis, and it’s not the concept or word; it’s what the concept and word refer to.

Okay. So now the basis. Can you find the referent object in the basis? Where can you find it? Where can you point to it? Svatantrika says that what the concept and word refer to appears, and you can point to that appearance. According to Prasangika, this is the problem with Svatantrika.

Now, when you talk about inherent existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa), that’s jargon. You have to look at the definition, otherwise you’re confused by the English connotations of the word inherent, which are a bit irrelevant. The definition of it is that “the referent object of a word or concept can be found, and its findability establishes that it exists.” That’s the definition of inherent existence, or perhaps more clearly translated as "self-established existence." So that inherent existence is what Svatantrika is talking about and what Prasangika is refuting.

Okay. So can you find the referent object of the word? Well, where can you find it? You find it in the basis. So what Svatantrika says is that the basis appears. Not only the basis appears, the thing appears; the labeled object appears. And then you have to refute something about it, which is that it exists independently of being the referent object of a word or concept. This is what Svatantrika is all about; it’s the combination of the two.

But what the Prasangika really objects to is that you put the fact that it appears as part of what establishes that it exists. The referent object appears, and then you refute it.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explained that according to Prasangika you can’t say, “Hey, come on, the object of refutation is what appears.” You can’t say the object of refutation, which actually doesn’t exist at all, appears – as if the invaders from the fifth dimension appear, and then you refute that they come from the fifth dimension. It’s not like that. So that’s what’s wrong with the Svatantrika view. You can’t say that just because something appears – and in addition it’s the referent object of the word or concept – that establishes that it exists, because everything that appears to the mind is an appearance of true existence. So everything that appears to the mind is false.

Prasangika says the only thing that establishes that anything exists is that it’s the referent object of a word or concept for it. How do you know that there’s such a thing as jealousy? Well, we have a word or concept for it, and it can be validated by other valid cognitions. There are three things that it has to satisfy, according to Chandrakirti:

  1. The first one is that it has to fit a pattern, a convention. So you didn’t just make up the word. Everybody has agreed. There it is in the dictionary: jealousy. So we’ve agreed on a convention of what to call it.
  2. Then it has to be not contradicted by a mind that validly cognizes the conventional appearance of things (the relative truth, or superficially what appears). The simplest example is: just because I see a blur when I take my glasses off, that doesn’t prove that a blur actually is existing there. I’m seeing a blur, but the fault is a faulty sensor, my eyes. Well, if you look later and check, and other people that are wearing their glasses or can hear properly experience it or that they're not crazy with paranoia or whatever, then it’s okay.
  3. The third criterion is that it’s not contradicted by a mind that validly knows the deepest truth of things. That’s often translated as ultimate truth, but His Holiness indicated that you want to be careful with that because then you can get the idea of this transcendental realm that’s the ultimate... The real thing. So if it’s not contradicted because of an appearance of true existence – well, everybody sees an appearance of true existence, but that’s contradicted by an arya’s total absorption, that “Hey, that’s not the case. That’s not valid.”
So it's only from the side of the mind can you establish that something actually exists; you can’t establish it from the side of the object. So this is very important.

It’s quite interesting. His Holiness in another teaching – where he was talking about the tenet systems – was saying this is why Chittamatra (Mind-Only) is such an important school, because it’s a stepping-stone. This is exactly what Shantideva says at the beginning of the ninth chapter of Bodhicharyavatara. He says that if you can understand something on a relative level and you can accept it, then you can have a deeper understanding that is similar to it. The example that he gives is it’s like an illusion. If you can understand that things are like an illusion on a simple level, you can understand it on a more profound level. So here what His Holiness referred to earlier was that if you can understand, from Chittamatra, that appearances are not established from the side of the object (appearances are established from the side of the mind), then you can go to understanding that how you establish something exists is not from the side of the object (it’s from the side of the mind).

Once, I challenge my classes to prove that we’re all in the same room. Can anybody here prove that we’re in the same room? And I say that if everybody in this room took a picture of what they see, and then they give it to an impartial person – you lay out all these pictures – this person would say, “Well, you’re all in a different place. Look here. They’re different pictures.”

But you could define the room, define the people, and then they’re there. You’ve defined it.

Well, how are you defining it? Is it from the side of the object or from the side of the mind?

It doesn’t matter how you define it. Once it’s established as a convention, it’s an established convention.

Just because there’s an established convention of a group of crazy people deciding that they’re all in the same place, that doesn’t prove it.

Then nothing can be proved.

Well, that is the big question. How do you prove anything? That’s the big, big question. And this is one of the arguments as well between Svatantrika and Prasangika. Svatantrika says that there is logic on the side of the universe. That’s a very, very important thing to think about. Are the laws of nature – if we can use this word that I was saying is better to avoid – inherent in the universe, or are they only conventions made up by the mind to try to understand how the universe works? Prasangika says no, logic is not inherent in the universe; it is not self-established from its own side and findable in the universe. This is what they argue about with the Svatantrika. Because the Svatantrika is saying in their logical arguments that there is such thing as self-established logic and that you can use it to prove something about a self-established object, and the only thing that you have to refute is that you’re using wrong logic, that you’ve come to a wrong conclusion. Prasangika says, “No, no, no. You can’t do that, because neither self-established logic or self-established objects you are applying it to exist. The only way that you can get the mind to stop making an incorrect belief is to show the absurd conclusion that follows from that belief, and then you realize that it was ridiculous, and then you stop.”

Is that the same as asserting that you can’t prove anything?

That would be a non-Gelugpa way of saying it.

So you can only establish that things exist because they are the referent objects of the words and concepts for them. There’s nothing on the side of the object that establishes that it exists, that proves that it exists. Just because it appears, doesn’t prove or establish that something exists.

This is very crucial when you get to the tantra. It’s expressed most nicely in the Sakya view of inseparable samsara and nirvana, which is that the clear-light mind is the source of all appearances, pure and impure. Everything of samsara and nirvana is an appearance of the clear-light mind. The clear-light mind makes these appearances. So either the appearances are pure (which means without appearing to have self-established existent, inherent existence) or impure (which means without an appearance of self-established existence). And by having the appearance of a Buddha-figure, it helps you to not think in your ordinary way. So pure and impure – it’s not just our usual body, the one that gets sick, and then the pure appearance of a Buddha-figure or a deity. That’s just taking it on the conventional level. What you want to do is do that on the deepest level, where this helps you to understand what really it’s talking about, which is the difference between an appearance of self-established existence and not an appearance of self-established existence.

If you do this with a Svatantrika understanding of tantra, then you would say, “Well, the clear-light mind made this appearance of a Buddha-figure as having self-established existence, so that establishes that a self-established Buddha-figure exists, and it’s what the word and concept for it refers to.” So that’s why it’s so important to have the Prasangika understanding with tantra, because there’s that danger that you’ll go to a Svatantrika view when you learn about how all appearances are coming from the clear-light mind. You'll take the fact that clear-lighht mind makes appearances of self-established existence to prove or establish that this deceptive appearance corresponds to reality and there really is self-established existence. This is a very important point.