The Two Essential Natures: Gelug Prasangika

The Need for Understanding Correctly the Two Truths

To gain a true stopping (‘gog-bden; true cessation) of suffering and thus attain liberation, we need to gain a true stopping of unawareness (ma-rig-pa; ignorance) and of the rest of the emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) that arise based on unawareness. These obscurations include all the disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs, Skt. klesha; afflictive emotions), such as anger and attachment, as well as their tendencies (sa-bon; seeds). These disturbing emotions and attitudes bring on the compulsive behavior of karma that drives us to undergo uncontrollably recurring rebirth with even more suffering.

Even if we gain liberation ourselves and are free of unawareness and disturbing emotions and attitudes forever, still we are unable to help everyone else gain liberation and enlightenment. We are unable to do that because of being unable to know and comprehend all phenomena simultaneously, especially behavioral cause and effect. To gain a true stopping of this inability, we need to gain a true stopping of our mental activity giving rise to and cognizing appearances of self-establishing natures (rang-bzhin) that seem to establish the findable existence of all phenomena. When our mental activity gives rise to such deceptive appearances, everything appears to us as if frozen in a still photo, existing by itself, disconnected from everything else. We do not see the connection between what we encounter and everything that previously happened that led to it and we have no idea what the outcome would be from any intervention we might make. This is why we are severely limited in our abilities to help others. Therefore, to overcome these limitations requires gaining a true stopping of these cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) and attaining omniscient enlightenment ourselves.

If we consider the four noble truths, we understand that true sufferings and true causes of sufferings are based on unawareness of the two truths (bden-gnyis) about all phenomena, while true stoppings and true pathway minds (true paths) are based on correct discriminating awareness (shes-rab, Skt. prajna; wisdom) of the two truths. Therefore, to gain liberation and advance further to attaining enlightenment, we need a correct understanding of the two truths. Tsongkhapa explains that specifically we need to understand the Prasangika assertion of the two.

The following explanation of Tsongkhapa’s assertion is based on his Middle Length Lam-rim (sKyes-bu gsum-gyi nyams-su blang-ba’i byang-chub lam-gyi rim-pa; The Stages of the Path to Enlightenment Practiced by Persons of the Three Scopes of Motivation) and on the commentary on the Second Jamyang Zhepa’s (Kun-mkhyen ‘Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa rdo-rje II, dKon-mchog ‘jigs-med dbang-po) text on tenet systems written by the 20th-century Geshe from Rong-bo Monastery in Amdo, Geshe Jamyang Dragpa (‘Jam-dbyangs grags-pa): A Mirror to Give Rise to the General Meaning of the Tenet Systems: An Explanation of the Manner of Assertions of the Propounders of Tenet Systems, Based on (Jamyang Zhepa II’s) “Jewel Garland of Tenet Systems” (Grub-mtha’ rin-chen ‘phreng-ba-la brten-nas grub-mtha’ smra-ba-dag-gi ‘dod-tshul bshad-pa grub-mtha’i spyi-don ‘char-ba’i me-long).

All Knowable Phenomena Have Two Essential Natures

The basis for division (dbye-gzhi) of the two truths is all knowable phenomena (chos thams-cad, Skt. sarvadharma). A “basis for division” refers to what it is that the two truths are truths about. For instance, the basis for division of location and speed is all moving objects.

A knowable phenomenon is defined as something that holds its own essential nature (rang-gi ngo-bo ‘dzin-pa). These knowable phenomena are equivalent to conventional objects (tha-snyad-pa), for instance a “human,” a “lake,” an “emotion” and “blue.” Conventional objects, however, is a broad category and includes conventional qualities as well, such as “good,” “large” and “frightening.” It also encompasses conventional actions, for instance “working,” “walking,” “understanding” and “enjoying.” In other words, conventional objects embrace everything that we could possible validly cognize and know.

  • The Sanskrit word “vyavaharika,” translated here as a “conventional object,” has the connotation of something that, for ease of communication and other practical purposes, is agreed upon by custom as being something.
  • Conventional objects, then, are the usual objects and things that we know, including abstract ones such as a “religion,” “justice” and “fun.”

All conventional objects not only hold their own essential natures, they have, in fact, two essential natures: a superficial essential nature (kun-rdzob-pa’i ngo-bo; concealer nature) and a deepest essential nature (don-dam-pa’i ngo-bo; ultimate nature).

The Superficial Essential Nature

The superficial essential nature of objects, sometimes called an object’s identity-nature (bdag-nyid), is what knowable phenomena conventionally are, for instance a human, a lake or a religion. The superficial essential natures of conventional objects appear to be established by self-establishing natures (rang-bzhin) findable on their own sides, although they are not. This self-establishing nature – something findable in an object that by its power makes it a human, a lake or a religion – is equivalent to a soul or a self (bdag; Skt. atman).

The Deepest Essential Nature

The deepest essential nature of objects is their voidness (stong-pa-nyid, Skt. shunyata; emptiness) of self-established existence (rang-bzhin-gyis grub-pa; inherent existence). Voidness is the total absence of an impossible mode of existence, in this case existence established or proven or affirmed by there being findable on the side of an object a self-establishing nature and not dependently arising (rten-cing ‘brel-bar ‘byung-ba, Skt. pratityasamutpada) in relation to something else. There is nothing findable on the side of a conventional object that by its own power establishes or makes it a human, a lake or a religion.

  • A limited being (sems-can; sentient being: a living being with limited body, speech and mind compared to a Buddha) is a human only relative to its not being a Neanderthal or a dog.
  • A body of water is a lake only relative to its not being a pond or a sea.
  • A set of beliefs is a religion only relative to its not being a philosophy.
  • A color is red only relative to its not being orange, and so forth.

In short, nothing is what it conventionally is without being what it conventionally is relative to being something else. There are no such things as self-establishing natures.

The deepest essential nature of all knowable phenomena, their voidness of being self-established, is also called their self-nature (rang-bzhin, the same term used in Tibetan for a self-establishing nature), their actual nature (chos-nyid), and their abiding nature (gnas-pa-nyid).


Consider more deeply the examples of a human, a lake and a religion.

Their superficial essential natures are their essential natures of being something. These superficial natures are facts: some objects conventionally are humans, some conventionally are lakes, by convention there is such a thing as a religion. After all, it is widely agreed upon that certain knowable objects are humans, not Neanderthals or dogs. Moreover, there isn’t any object that is a nothing. These superficial natures appear to be established by self-establishing natures that seem to exist and be findable on the side of these objects. They seem to be that which, by their own power, make these objects what they in fact conventionally are: a human, a lake or a religion.

But there are no such things as these self-establishing natures. In fact, there aren’t even self-establishing natures that make things knowable objects at all. After all, there isn’t a plastic coating around anything that makes it something knowable, isolated from everything else. There aren’t findable boundaries on the sides of limited beings that, on one side, make them humans and on the other Neanderthals. The same is the case regarding findable boundaries on the sides of bodies of water separating lakes from ponds, on the sides of sets of beliefs differentiating a religion from a philosophy, on the side of emotions dividing loving someone from merely liking the person, or on the side of light demarcating blue from green.

The deepest essential nature of conventional objects, then, is their total absence of self-establishing natures that establish their superficial essential natures as a human, a lake or a religion, rather than their superficial essential natures as a human, a lake or a religion just dependently arising in relation to something else.

Dependent Arising

We can understand “dependently arising in relation to something else” in several ways. One such way was in comparison to something else, for instance our fourth finger is large compared to our little finger, but small compared to our middle finger. Another way entails what things are dependent on in order to exist at all. Wholes can only arise and exist dependently on parts; and products can only arise and exist dependently on causes and conditions.

The Prasangika assertion, however, is much more profound and subtle. The superficial essential natures of what knowable phenomena are can only be accounted for as dependently arising merely in relation to mental labeling with categories (spyi; generalities) and designation of those categories with words (ming; names). But what does this mean?

To understand dependent arising in this more profound and subtler sense, we need to know a few points:

  • Mental labeling with categories and designation with words are functions of conceptual cognition (rtog-pa).
  • Conceptual cognitions are cognitions of knowable phenomena through the medium of categories.
  • Categories and, through the categories, knowable objects conceptually fit into them as members of the categories, may or may not be designated with a word. Snails, for instance, conceptually cognize certain items through the category of “food,” but do not associate a word with the category.

The conceptual cognitions that mentally label and designate things as a “human,” a “lake” or a “religion” give rise to appearances of the conventional objects as being self-established as what the categories and words refer to. In other words, when we look at an object and conceptually cognize it through the category “human” or “lake” and designate it with the word “human” or “lake,” the conventional object appears to us as actually being a human or a lake: me or you, Lake Michigan or Lake Baikal. When we think of something through the category a “religion” and designate it with the word “religion,” what we are thinking of in terms of this convention appears to us as actually being a religion, for instance Christianity or Buddhism.

In addition, these conceptual cognitions conceive that there actually are self-establishing natures on the sides of the conventional objects that, by their power, actually establish them as a human, a lake or a religion. Conceptual cognitions imagine this because they interpolate (sgro-‘dogs; superimpose, project) the defining characteristic marks (mtshan-nyid) of the categories “human,” “lake,” or “religion,” and of the words “human,” “lake” or “religion,” as being findable on the sides of both the categories and words themselves, as well as being findable on the sides of the conventional objects that they mentally label and designate them with.

  • In other words, the categories that appear in conceptual thought, such as “religion,” seem to have self-established definitions, not merely definitions agreed upon by convention.
  • The objects labeled as members of these categories, such as Christianity and Buddhism, seem also to have findable within them these same defining characteristics that, by their own power, make them fit into the category “religion” as members of this category.
  • However, whether or not Buddhism fits into the category “religion” is dependent on the definition of a religion and such a definition can only be one that is agreed upon by convention. There are no absolute defining characteristic features findable already inside the category that have not been agreed upon by convention. In short, something being a religion all depends on how you define a religion.

To the conceptual cognitions, these defining characteristic marks findable on the sides of conventional objects actually establish the existence of the conventional objects as a human, a lake or a religion, either by their own power alone or by their own power in conjunction with mental labeling and designation. Mental labeling and designation as a human, a lake, or a religion, however, do not make or truly establish conventional objects as being humans, lakes or religions. Nor do they create conventional objects.

Conventional objects, however, conventionally do exist as humans, lakes or religions. But how is it that they are a human, a lake or a religion? Their existence as a human, a lake or a religion can be accounted for only in relation to their being mentally labeled with the categories “human,” “lake” or “religion” and designated with the words “human,” “lake” or “religion.” Nevertheless, they do not have to be actively labeled or designated as “human,” “lake” or “religion” by anyone in order for there to be such conventional things.

So, what then is a human, a lake or a religion? All we can say is that they are merely what the categories and words “human,” “lake” and “religion” refer to, when labeled and designated on an appropriate basis for labeling (gdags-gzhi). An appropriate basis would be a certain type of limited being, a certain type of physical object and a certain set of beliefs, all of which have certain conventionally agreed-upon defining characteristic marks. But even their being a certain type of limited being, physical object or set of beliefs also only dependently arises in relation to mental labeling and designation alone.

In short, all knowable phenomena are devoid of being self-established as what they conventionally are. Nevertheless, they are conventionally something, not nothing. And they do have the conventionally agreed-upon defining characteristics of what they are mentally labeled and designated as. Otherwise, the absurd conclusions would follow that nothing could be distinguished from anything else, and everything could be anything: a human could be a lake!

[See: Imputation, Mental Labeling and Designation.]

Grasping for Truly Established Existence

In the Gelug Prasangika system, then, self-established existence is equivalent to:

  • Truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa)
  • Existence established from something’s own side (rang-gi ngos-nas grub-pa)
  • Existence established by a self-defining characteristic mark (rang-gi mtshan-nyid-kyis grub-pa)
  • Existence established by an essential nature (ngo-bo-nyis-kyi grub-pa).

When we speak of “grasping for truly established existence” (bden-‘dzin), this grasping, however, has two layers:

  • Giving rise to the interpolation of an appearance of a self-establishing nature and, in doing so, cognizing it. An interpolation (sgro-‘dogs; superimposition, projection) is the addition of something that is not there. This layer of grasping is a cognitive obscuration (shes-sgrib) preventing omniscience.
  • In addition, giving rise to the interpolation of the findable true existence of that self-establishing nature, and in doing so, cognizing it. This layer is equivalent to unawareness according to Tsongkhapa and is an emotional obscuration (nyon-sgrib) preventing liberation.