Overview of Shantideva on Emptiness – Dr. Berzin

In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (sPyod-‘jug, Skt. Bodhicaryavatara), the great Indian master Shantideva discusses, in ten chapters, the bodhisattva path. He begins with explaining the benefits of developing bodhichitta and the necessity for doing so immediately: because death can come at any time and deprive us of our precious human rebirth. To practice bodhichitta fully, requires taking the bodhisattva vows; and to be able to take and keep them requires a great build up of a network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, collection of merit). Therefore, Shantideva next explains the practice of the seven-limb prayer (yan-lag bdun-pa) to build up that positive force and the method for taking the bodhisattva vows.

Keeping the bodhisattva vows entails practicing the six far-reaching attitudes (pha-rol-tu byin-pa, Skt. paramita, perfections). The remainder of the text explains their practice and ends with a dedication prayer. Here, we shall present an overview of the ninth chapter concerning far-reaching discriminating awareness (shes-phyin, prajnaparamita, perfection of wisdom) concerning the Madhyamaka view of voidness (emptiness).

General Overview of the First Part of Chapter Nine (Verses 1-56)

First, Shantideva sets out the method for gaining progressively deeper understanding. He explains that there are different truths about things and when we understand the deepest truth (don-dam bden-pa, ultimate truth), our understanding will contradict the ordinary understanding of the superficial truth (kun-rdzob bden-pa, relative truth). Even the yogis who supposedly perceive deepest truth gain progressively deeper understandings that contradict what they understood before. Thus, we can go deeper in our understanding by using common themes, such as things being like an illusion.

Then for the first part of his chapter, Shantideva gives a general presentation of the Madhyamaka view of voidness. He focuses on demonstrating the need to apply the Madhyamaka understanding of voidness to all phenomena in order to gain liberation and enlightenment.

First, he discusses the need to apply it to persons. We need to go deeper than the Hinayana understanding that persons lack static, monolithic, separate souls (rtag-gcig-rang-dbang-gi bdag) and self-sufficiently (independently) knowable souls (rang-rkya ‘dzin-thub-pa’i bdag). Persons lack truly established existence (bden-par grub-pa). Rebirth, karma, the mind that accumulates karma, and liberation from karma and rebirth still occur on the basis of persons lacking true existence and thus their existing like an illusion.

Next, he discusses the need to apply Madhyamaka voidness to the mind that meditates on voidness. We need to go deeper than the Chittamatra understanding that forms of physical phenomena are devoid of external existence. We need to gain a deeper understanding of voidness that applies to the mind as well. If we can understand that the mind can perceive forms of physical phenomena that are like an illusion, we need to realize that the mind too is like an illusion. Reflexive awareness (rang-rig) of the mind does not establish that mind has truly established existence, because reflexive awareness does not exist at all.

Shantideva then reaffirms that the mind conventionally exists and performs functions such as meditation on voidness. Thus, meditation conventionally exists and functions to bring liberation.

He then discusses the need to apply Madhyamaka voidness to what is understood by meditation, namely to voidness itself. Voidness does not have truly established existence as Chittamatra believes.

We also need to apply Madhyamaka voidness to the result of the meditation on voidness, namely to the Buddhas we become. Buddhas lack true existence and yet making offerings to them and to their stupas functions to help bring liberation.

But just as making offerings to stupas is not enough for bringing liberation, neither is meditation on the four noble truths. Thus, in summary, we need to meditate on Madhyamaka voidness as taught in the Mahayana sutras (The Prajnaparamita Sutras), as it applies to all phenomena. Only this brings liberation and enlightenment.

Shantideva then counters any arguments that might try to disprove the validity of the Mahayana sutras and then demonstrates how the nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths – specifically, of nonstaticness (impermanence) and the lack of a self-sufficiently knowable soul of a person – is insufficient for bringing liberation. Such meditation does not actually rid us of the craving (sred-pa) that is still left after arising from total absorption (mnyam-bzhag), and this craving activates the karmic aftermath of throwing karma, which brings further samsaric rebirth.

Shantideva concludes his general presentation by begging practitioners, please, if you seek liberation, meditate on Madhyamaka voidness. There is nothing to be afraid of; voidness is not equivalent to nothingness. The Madhyamaka position is not nihilism.

More Detailed Overview of the First Part


Shantideva first sets out the method of his presentation. There are different levels of truth and what yogis perceive contradict what worldly people perceive. Even among yogis, there are progressive stages of deeper understanding. We can go deeper through the example of an illusion. We can also understand deeper meanings of true existence, so that we can refute them and understand that although all things are like an illusion, nevertheless all things function to produce effects.

The Self Lacks True Existence

First, we need to go beyond the Sautrantika view that all affected (nonstatic) phenomena, including the self, have true existence. For Sautrantika and Chittamatra, something has true existence if it functions to produces an effect. That is what proves or establishes that it is real. Sautrantika and Chittamatra assert that the self is devoid of being an unaffected, monolithic soul, separate from the aggregates and that, as a functional phenomenon, it is truly existent. They also assert that the truly existent self is imputed on the aggregates and cannot be known self-sufficiently (independently) on its own, and yet nevertheless the self still functions like an illusion. If we can understand and accept that, we can go to the deeper Madhyamaka understanding.

In Svatantrika-Madhyamaka, true existence means existence established as something not imputed on a basis. In Prasangika-Madhyamaka, true existence means existence established not merely by the fact that it can be imputed on a basis, but also by the fact that there is something findable on the side of the basis that allows for a correct mental labeling. The self does not exist in either of those two impossible ways. The self lacks true existence, nevertheless, like an illusion, it still functions and produces effects.

If, on the basis of the Sautantrika view, we can understand that the self lacks existence as something self-sufficiently knowable, like an illusion, and yet still functions to produce effects, we can go on to the Madhyamaka view. We can also understand that on the basis of the Madhyamaka view, the self lacks true existence, like an illusion, and yet still functions to produce effects. Thus, Shantideva explains that rebirth, karma, the mind that accumulates karma, and liberation from karma and rebirth can still occur on the basis of sentient beings lacking true existence and thus their existing like an illusion.

The Mind That Understands the Self to Be Like an Illusion Also Lacks True Existence

Suppose we then go to a Chittamatra understanding that to gain liberation, the mind that understands things to be like an illusion must itself truly exist. We need to go beyond that too and understand that if the physical phenomena that mind perceives are like an illusion in that they lack external existence, so too the mind that perceives them is like an illusion – it lacks truly established existence.

The Chittamatra system asserts that what proves that mind has true existence is that it is validly known nonconceptually by reflexive awareness. Therefore, Shantideva refutes the existence of reflexive awareness – there is no such thing and so how can cognition by it prove that the mind is truly existent.

Meditation Conventionally Exists and Functions to Bring Liberation

Shantideva then reaffirms that in refuting the true existence of mental activity (mind), we are not refuting the conventional existence of the mental activities of listening, thinking, and meditating on Dharma. These are still required and still function to bring us liberation. Further, how could a truly existent mind function to do anything? How could it meditate?

The Voidness Understood by Meditation Also Lacks True Existence

Although we need to understand the voidness of all phenomena and that everything is like an illusion, we also need to go beyond the Chittamatra position that the voidness, which we need to understand, is truly existent. Chittamatra asserts that voidness is truly existent because it is not just imputed by conceptual cognition; it is an ultimate object known by an arya’s total absorption. Shantideva argues that to rid ourselves completely of disturbing emotions and attitudes (nyon-mongs), we must apply the understanding of voidness to voidness itself. Then, we become Buddhas.

Buddhas Lack True Existence

We might then question how can we help others as Buddhas if Buddhas too lack true existence, especially after they pass away with parinirvana? Whether we have no further continuity of mind (as Hinayana believes) or we have no truly existent mind, Shantideva explains that Buddhas still function to help others, like a wish-granting gem that lacks a mind. This comes from the power of Buddhas’ previous prayers. Thus, making offerings to stupas has beneficial results, and so does making offerings to non-truly existent Buddhas.

Necessity of Gaining the Madhyamaka Understanding of Voidness to Reach Liberation

But merely making offerings to stupas and Buddhas is not sufficient for gaining liberation. Similarly, simply cognizing the four noble truths nonconceptually is insufficient if the true path cognized does not include the Madhyamaka understanding of the lack of the true existence of everything.

Since the Madhyamaka understanding comes from The Prajnaparamita Sutras, which are Mahayana sutras, first Shantideva counters any arguments used to refute the validity of the Mahayana sutras. Any argument for refuting their validity can also apply to refuting the validity of the Hinayana sutras. And any argument for proving the validity of the Hinayana sutras can also apply to proving the validity of the Mahayana sutras. So, if you can accept that the Hinayana sutras are valid, you can also accept that the Mahayana sutras are valid.

Then, he argues that without understanding the lack of true existence of all phenomena, we cannot rid ourselves of the disturbing emotions and samsaric rebirth. After arising from total absorption on lesser understandings of voidness, or on merely nonstaticness (impermanence), tainted feelings arise once more. Craving then arises toward those tainted feelings and craving activates the karmic aftermath of throwing karma so that it ripens into being uncontrollable thrown into a further samsaric rebirth. Thus, without the Madhayamaka understanding, we cannot even gain liberation from samsara as an arhat.

Summary of the First Part of the Chapter

We need to understand the voidness of true existence in the full Madhyamaka sense in order to gain even liberation, yet alone enlightenment; and we need to understand that it applies to all phenomena. Thus, we need to understand that voidness of true existence applies to:

  • the self,
  • the mind that understands the voidness of the self,
  • the meditation on voidness,
  • the voidness understood by that mind,
  • the Buddhahood achieved by that meditation.

The fact that voidness of true existence is required comes from the Mahayana sutras, and we need to understand that they are valid teachings of Buddha.

The benefit of meditation on the voidness of true existence of all phenomena is that it brings liberation. Meditation on lesser understandings cannot bring liberation. Therefore, do not be afraid that the Madhyamaka position is one of nihilism. Despite all things lacking true existence, everything still functions. So please meditate on the Madhyamaka understanding of voidness.

Overview of the Second Part of the Chapter (Verses 57 – 167)

Next, in the main part of the chapter, Shantideva gives a more extensive presentation of Madhyamaka voidness by first discussing in detail the voidness of persons as a truly existent "me" and then the voidness of all phenomena as truly existent "mine."

Voidness of the Self of Persons

Shantideva goes through all the parts of the body, to examine if a truly existent self is findable as one with the body. A truly existent self is not any of the parts of the body, nor is it any of the elements that compose it, nor is it any of the types of consciousness.

Then, Shantideva explores the possibilities of a truly existent self that exists as something findable, totally separate and different from the aggregates. There are two main positions of such a self, asserted by two non-Buddhist Indian schools that assert a self or soul that is permanent and causeless. Shantideva refutes each in turn.

The Samkhya position is that such a self has a nature of being a consciousness and that it cognizes objects. The Nyaya position is that such a self lacks a nature of consciousness and just uses consciousness to cognize objects. Shantideva draws out the absurd conclusions that follow from both positions.

Thus, the self ("me") lacks a findable truly existent identity. Its existence is established merely in as much as it can be validly labeled or imputed on a stream of continuity of five aggregates, but it is not truly findable as something either the same as or separate from the aggregates.

Nevertheless, based on the self being merely imputable on the continuity of the five aggregates, behavioral cause and effect connect with each other and there is continuity of experience. Further, based on the selves of other sentient beings having existence established by their merely being validly imputable, it is appropriate for us to develop compassion for them. Thus, it is vitally important always to reaffirm the functionality of conventional truth.

The Voidness of All Phenomena

Next, Shantideva discusses the voidness of all phenomena in terms of the objects focused on in the four close placements of mindfulness (dran-pa nyer-bzhag, Skt. smrtyupasthana, Pali: satipatthana): the body, the feelings of levels of happiness and unhappiness, the mind, and the nature of things. All Hinayana and Mahayana schools assert their practice as the first four of the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state (byang-chub yan-lag so-bdun). Shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas alike practice the four to reach the purified state (byang-chub, Skt. bodhi) of arhatship or Buddhahood.

Having explained the inadequacy of the Hinayana and non-Madhyamaka Mahayana manners of meditating on the four – merely to realize the four noble truths in terms of them – Shantideva presents a Madhyamaka way to meditate in terms of their voidness of true existence.

The Voidness of the Body

The Theravada method of closely placing mindfulness on the body observes how the different types of breath affect the body. But, what do the varying types of breath affect: the body as a whole or one of its parts? Mahayana practice focuses here on the body’s lack of being beautiful, clean, or pure. It simply has the nature of suffering. But what is impure: the whole body or one of its parts?

Both styles of meditation need to be supplemented by the Madhyamaka understanding of voidness. Therefore, Shantideva examines whether the body has true existence, by examining the relationship between a truly existent whole and its parts. A truly existent whole is not in its parts, or outside them, nor does it possess its parts. Then, he analyzes the true findable existence of the parts themselves.

The Voidness of the Feelings

Theravada, here, observes how the changing feelings affect the mind. Mahayana focuses on how the changing feelings, as examples of suffering, lead to craving. This brings understanding of the true cause of suffering. But in both cases, how could the feelings change and how could they affect the mind if they are truly existent?

Shantideva therefore examines next whether the feelings have true existence, by examining the relation between truly existent suffering and truly existent happiness. For example, if suffering had true existence, we could never be happy. The continual changing of the feelings observed in mindfulness meditation could never occur. Then, to have feelings, there must be contact between the cognitive sensors and cognitive sense objects. Shantideva examines how could contact possibly occur based on the sensors and the objects having findable true existence.

He then goes on to refute the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika assertion of truly existent partless particles and how they could possibly be involved in contact. If they lack parts, they lack sides, and so how could they meet? He also examines how could a truly existent consciousness possibly have contact with a truly existent object, to form a basis for feeling.

He also discusses the relation between feelings and the mind. As there is no findable truly existent agent who feels, then feelings of suffering cannot cause truly existent harm to a network of identityless aggregates.

The Voidness of the Mind

Theravada now focuses on the manner in which the presence and absence of disturbing mental states affect the mind. Mahayana emphasizes realizing, from the nonstaticness of these mental states, that mind is naturally free of being "me" and that a true stopping of suffering and its causes is possible. But, how could disturbing mental and emotional states possibly affect the mind if the mind is truly existent? How could a truly existent mind possibly have valid cognition of anything?

Therefore, Shantideva examines whether the mind is something findable, with true existence, by searching to find it. A truly existent mind cannot be located anywhere: not in the cognitive sensors, the cognitive objects, the body, and so on. Then he examines the relation between mind and its objects. Which occurs first, a truly existent consciousness of an object or a truly existent object cognized? How does consciousness of an object actually arise? Shantideva then reaffirms the conventional truth of consciousness of objects in terms of dependent arising, and discusses how to validate cognitions. A separate faculty of reflexive awareness is unnecessary for validating a cognition, especially on the basis of true existence. Just the consciousness itself can implicitly know the valid occurrence and the validity of its own cognitions.

The Voidness of the Nature of Things

Theravada now reexamines all functional, affected and affecting phenomena and realizes their nature as nonstatic, beyond our control, and devoid of being either "me" or "mine." They are just like that and, through further realization of their being conditioned phenomena, we can rid ourselves of disturbing emotions and attitudes toward them, which cause continuing samsara. Mahayana examines not only functional phenomena, but nonfunctional (static) ones as well, to realize that a true path of understanding their natures brings true stoppings. This entails realization of which mental states to cultivate and which to get rid of. But, how could truly existent realization possibly cause anything? How could it possibly lead to a true stopping of suffering and its causes? How could arising and ceasing even occur?

Thus, Shantideva examines whether functional phenomena exist as findable things, with true existence, by examining causality. First, he refutes that phenomena arise from no cause. Then, he refutes that they arise as the creation of the Hindu God Ishvara. In this context, Shantideva refutes in general the existence of a creator God who is static (permanent), unaffected, does not rely on anything, and is not influenced by anything in order to create.

He then refutes creation from static unchanging particles (the Nyaya position) or from static primal matter (the Samkhya position). The refutation of the Samkhya position goes on with a detailed analysis of the illogicality of the three universal constituents (yon-tan gsum, Skt. triguna; three qualities) system. Shantideva concludes this section by refuting the Samkhya position that effects exist in unmanifest forms within their causes.

Once more, Shantideva discusses the voidness of voidness as the true nature of reality, and yet cause and effect work like an illusion. Then, he discusses how, based on findable true existence, a true stopping (cessation) of suffering and its causes is also illogical.

Implications for the Practice of Compassion

If there is no findable truly existent arising or ceasing of phenomena in general, there is no findable truly existent arising or ceasing of sentient beings. They are all like an illusion or a dream. Therefore, there is no basis for the eight transitory phenomena (‘jig-rten chos-brgyad, the eight worldly feelings) of being happy when praised, unhappy when abused, and so on. Yet, because people do not understand this, they make themselves miserable. Thus, we need to develop compassion for those who cause themselves unhappiness like this.

The chapter ends with the resolve, based on this compassion, to build up and strengthen an enlightenment-building network of positive force (collection of merit) to be able to understand all of this ourselves and to teach it to others.